U.S. Air Force Begins Auto GCAS Test Flight Missions with F-35 Lightning II Fighter Aircraft

The U.S. Air Force 461st Flight Test Squadron recently began test flight missions with the F-35 aircraft and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

“Auto-GCAS saves lives, it’s been proven in the F-16 and the F-22,” said Lt. Col. Tucker Hamilton, F-35 Integrated Test Force director and 461st FLTS commander.

Hamilton explained that pilots could become disoriented from a variety of scenarios including target-fixation or Gravity-Induced Loss of Consciousness. In the case of a probable ground collision, the Auto GCAS would activate, take control from the pilot and return the plane to safe altitude and attitude.

The Auto GCAS utilizes sensors on the plane, terrain data and other various on-board monitors to determine a probable ground collision. Based on the plane’s trajectory, speed, and lack of input from the pilot, the system then calculates the best way to recover to a safe trajectory. Edwards AFB plays an integral role in the testing and development of the F-35 Auto GCAS, gleaned from experience during the F-16 Auto and F-22 GCAS development. Edwards also shaped the programatics of the capability, advocating for fielding earlier than originally planned on behalf of the warfighter.

“We understand the technology very well at Edwards because we developed it here. We’ve been able to be an advocate to the warfighter, and the F-35 enterprise as a whole, to get them to accelerate implementation of F-35 Auto GCAS by about seven years,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t supposed to get in the F-35 for another seven years from now, and we’re flying it today.”

The addition of Auto GCAS to the F-35 makes it a more capable aircraft, said Lt. Col. Raven LeClair, 461st FLTS test pilot.

“This technology is the stepping stone to increased combat capability via a fully capable combat autopilot that will be able to execute tactical maneuvers to defeat inbound kinetic and non-kinetic threats and maximize lethality through precise weapon employment,” expressed LeClair. “The future F-35 pilot is going to be a lethal battlefield manager with automated tools at his fingertips to ensure survivability and lethality.”

One of the key points of the test flights is to make sure the Auto GCAS is compatible with the F-35’s other onboard computer systems.

Currently, F-35s are equipped with an earlier version of the software that provides pilots with a Manual Ground Collison Avoidance System (MGCAS). With this system, a pilot must be able to hear, see, process, and heed the MGCAS warning, and manually fly the aircraft away from the ground. If a pilot becomes disoriented or incapacitated, he or she may not be able to respond to MGCAS warnings, and their chances of survival severely deteriorate.

The anti-collision software was developed at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio and after years of testing and improvements made to digital mapping technology, the system became operational when it was installed on F-16s in 2014. Since then, seven pilots and six F-16 aircraft have credited AutoGCAS with lives and equipment.



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