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Inside the KTV – the flight test office responsible for evaluating all new equipment and modifications for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16 fleet
Located at Leeuwarden in the northern Dutch province of Friesland, the Kantoor Testvliegen (KTV, or flight test office) may be a small unit, but it has an important role within NATO. Flying a single, specially equipped Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, the KTV is responsible for evaluating all new equipment and modifications for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16 fleet. The unit is also responsible for testing new software updates for use across the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF), which comprises fellow F-16 operators Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Portugal.
At the time of writing, the KTV operates as a branch of an F-16 squadron, 323 TACTESS (Tactical Training, Evaluation and Standardization Squadron), one of two on the base. A unique unit, 323 TACTESS is divided into four separate departments, or flights, the first two of which carry out standard operational duties in common with other Dutch F-16 units. As such, 323 is also an ‘ordinary’ Dutch F-16 unit, with regular operational commitments to the NATO Response Force (NRF), including in Afghanistan. The second flight is additionally charged with organizing the Frisian Flag international large-scale fighter exercise. A third flight is responsible for standardization within the RNLAF, and also provides the Fighter Weapons Instructor Training (FWIT) course for the EPAF. The fourth department of 323 TACTESS is the operational test and evaluation (OT&E) flight. The fifth and final element is also the smallest: the KTV.
The flight test office holds a special position within 323 TACTESS, as chief test pilot Major Ralf ‘Lucky’ Lukkien, explains: “The flight test office is supported by 323 TACTESS; however, I directly report to the squadron commander and directly to the materiel command flight test department. I rely on the squadron commander for support, but my tasks come direct from the materiel command.”
The unit is headed by Lukkien, a USAF Test Pilot School graduate with more than 2,400 hours on the F-16, including around 1,500 combat hours over the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The KTV comprises a staff of two test pilots, one flight test engineer and a dedicated technical engineer for support of electronic systems. “We are a small unit,” Lukkien admits, “but we have all the rest of the base for engineering and support and the National Aerospace Laboratory of the Netherlands (NLR), which helps out with analysis of data.”
The KTV carries out its work from its own building next to 323 Squadron headquarters, and also maintains its own workshop and mission planning and briefing facilities. “We have computers for analysis on-site,” says Lukkien. “In the workshop we can modify and adjust as needed for certain projects, but we do not have much in the way of specialized testing facilities.”
As well as operations from the Leeuwarden headquarters, the KTV also makes use of locations run by the NLR, with which it has a close relationship. Two NLR test sites in Amsterdam and Northeast Polder are, for example, available for radar trials and electromagnetic interference (EMI) testing. “If we need to drop smart weapons, with a huge footprint, then we deploy to other bases,” explains Lukkien. Recent deployment locations for weapons tests include the Vidsel range in Sweden and Bodø in Norway.
The main role of KTV is to test all new configurations of the Dutch F-16 fleet at a cost-effective price. The primary tool for this work is the unique F-16BM instrumented testbed, serial J-066, known as the Orange Jumper. This two-seat F-16 remains fully mission capable, and is therefore unique in the world. “Normal flight testbeds lack certain operational systems in order to accommodate all the flight test equipment,” Lukkien continues. “My F-16 is fully mission capable and still has all the operational systems in it. It is also used for day-to-day training missions by the normal squadron.”
Any new equipment for the Dutch F-16 will first be evaluated by the KTV, using the Orange Jumper. The flight test office will examine how any new addition affects the existing external load configurations: this might involve a new device or software patch. The KTV also works closely with the US Air Force’s 416th Flight Test Squadron located at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The major software upgrades for the EPAF operators are currently first evaluated and tested at Edwards. However, J-066 is also used to evaluate the software tape during early operational assessments. Its unique fully operational status and recording capabilities help to find, determine and fix problems encountered at an early stage. Beyond EPAF duties, the KTV also occasionally conducts some work on behalf of the US F-16 Special Project Office. “Last year we also did Advanced Interrogation Friend or Foe (AIFF) Mode 5 tests that will benefit not only the EPAF but also the US F-16 community,” says Lukkien.
The Orange Jumper name is derived from the fact that all additional test equipment and wiring in the aircraft are colored orange for ease of identification by maintainers. This F-16 can carry external high-speed cameras on multiple stations for safe-separation testing, and is also fitted with an extended red and white ‘Viagra Boom’ pitot tube to measure angle of attack, side slip and environmental data. “The special thing we have in our F-16 is that we normally fly with our flight test engineer in the back seat. He or she has a display where he can monitor all parameters required for the testing. For load testing, for example, he can pull up a screen with graphs displaying specific frequency diagrams for the oscillation and can monitor it in real time. We don’t use a control room on the ground, instead we have our flight test engineer with us in the back seat.”
The flight test office is currently working on a range of initiatives, among them integration of the GBU-49 precision-guided bomb, beyond-line-of-sight communication and SATCOM testing, integration of new night vision goggles (as worn by Lucky, above) and night vision compatible displays.
Projects now also include work to pave the way for the introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, in the form of L-16 interoperability testing. “In the near future there is also a test project for smart simulation,” Lukkien reveals. Currently NLR and the Dutch Aerospace Group are in the bidding for the F-35 simulation programme. “The aim is to develop live virtual constructive training for the F-35, and this will probably involve our testbed for risk reduction, before migrating this to the F-35.”
Another example of the KTV’s collaborative work with the NLR is the Fighter Aircraft Robust Power Management (FARPM) project.
Commissioned by the RNLAF, this has used the Orange Jumper for flying demo profiles. For FARPM, the NLR uses calculation models to study the effects of energy management and distribution on the operational deployability of new-generation fighter jets.
A change in sight
In early November, 323 TACTESS is set to disband, and as a result, the KTV will be rolled into 322 Squadron, also based at Leeuwarden. The move is part of wider cuts within the Dutch military, and also continues rationalization of the F-16 fleet as the RNLAF moves towards its final retirement and replacement by the F-35. “For the flight test office there will not be much in the way of change,” confirms Lukkien. “The only thing that will change is who we report to and who supports us.” In fact, base operations already make use of pooled aircraft, and pilots of the two squadrons have been working together for the past 12 months.
Although the F-16 is getting older, in some ways the KTV is playing an increasingly important role. The new flight test instrumentation system is intended to ensure the life of the jet until its planned withdrawal date in 2024. J-066 recently emerged from deep maintenance, including the provision of wiring for a completely new flight test instrumentation system from ACRA (a division of Curtiss-Wright Controls Avionics & Electronics). “Basically all components were replaced by a new suite,” explains Lukkien.
After six months in the hangar, successful test flights of the new configuration began this August. However, the jet will shortly go back into maintenance for a six- to eight-week period in order to receive new ARC-120 radios. Shared use of aircraft on the base means the KTV can call upon other Leeuwarden F-16s to keep flying when J-066 undergoes work, and when specialized flight test instrumentation is not required.
“We do see a slight drop off in the testing of new capabilities for the F-16,” admits Lukkien. However, the future still looks bright for the KTV. “We are seeing more and more sustainability flight testing.” This might involve testing of replacement components,
Continued cost cutting also means the NLR is playing an increasingly important role in the KTV’s work. “They designed and maintain our flight test instrumentation,” Lukkien says, “and they do a lot of the data processing. Due to restricting and downsizing, a lot of the engineering capability has moved over to the NLR.” The KTV is required to continue testing with the Orange Jumper until 2024 but if necessary could continue beyond that for one or two more years, Lukkien confirms.
Thomas Newdick is an aviation and defense writer and editor based in Berlin.