Tucked away in the far corner of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Air System hangar houses more than 200 highly experienced professionals charged with testing both a brand new aircraft in the Naval Aviation inventory, and a game changing addition to the maritime patrol and reconnaissance mission.
The MQ-4C Triton is a high altitude, long endurance, large unmanned aircraft system (UAS) based on the Air Force’s Global Hawk, but with a number of system and airframe upgrades to meet the unique requirements of its naval mission. Triton is designed to travel a long distance and remain on station for many hours, all the while being controlled from halfway around the world.
Integrating even the normal operations of a UAS of this size into the extremely busy airspace of Patuxent River would be difficult, but throw in high risk test maneuvers and safe completion of a flight takes the focused effort of an entire team.
Recent air vehicle testing has included high crosswind/heavy gross weight landings, allowing the fleet to increase their takeoff and landing crosswind limits, as well as a carefully planned and executed flutter program that increased flight control freeplay limits, which will result in quicker production of new airframes.
United States Naval Test Pilot School graduates were at the controls for the test flight related to these two efforts. The sensory feedback these pilots would get from sitting in the cockpit of a manned aircraft is now reduced to the data displayed on their computer screens in a building on the other side of the base.
When they ask themselves “does this look right, does this feel right?” they need the help of a wide ranging test team to be able to confidently answer. Airborne or ground chase offers reassuring actual eyes on the aircraft. Dedicated government and civilian engineers construct test points and monitor progress through telemetry or system feedback. Maintenance installs and monitors new component and aircraft health monitoring equipment. Even air traffic control is crucial with their coordination and confirmation of clear airspace.
Though the airspace might be busy, the Patuxent River Operating Area offers the perfect laboratory for the development and improvement of the on-board sensors. The Triton test team is staffed with skilled enlisted and commissioned operators from the P-3 Orion, EP-3 Aries and P-8 Poseidon communities who bring a wealth of recent on-station experience to ensure these new systems can seamlessly meet the worldwide demand for multi-domain airborne intelligence.
While these experts continue to test and improve the current systems on board Triton, work is already underway to prepare for near-future upgrades that will enhance fleet capabilities, such as radar and network improvements. The largest change on the horizon is the transition to Triton Multi-Int, which will be a nose-to-tail aircraft upgrade that will dramatically increase the on-station capabilities of the aircraft, and will require the full spectrum of meticulous test and evaluation once the aircraft arrives on the VX-20 flight line. The dedicated Triton Integrated Test Team is ready for the challenge.