Aircraft Technology, Integration and Operations

First flights and diverse applications headline 2023 activity

The Flight Testing Technical Committee focuses on testing of aircraft, spacecraft, missiles or other vehicles in their natural environments.

Multiple commercial space companies conducted milestone test flights. In April and May, Virgin Galactic flew its VSS Unity spaceplane to the edge of space. In June, the company flew its first paying passengers, marking the transition from research and development to commercial operations. As of November, the company had completed five tourist flights. In November, SpaceX launched its second Starship-Super Heavy. Shortly after stage separation, Super Heavy exploded, with Starship continuing on for several minutes before it was lost at an altitude of 148 kilometers. FAA announced it would oversee  a “mishap” investigation of the flight, led by SpaceX. During the April inaugural flight, the rocket exploded about four minutes after liftoff.

Numerous programs began flight testing this year. In January, F-35 fleet modernization progressed with the first flight of the Technology Refresh 3 configuration at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In April, the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland released the first two-weapon salvo of Stormbreaker bombs from an F-35B. In June, a U.S. Air Force pilot flew a Boeing T-7A Red Hawk for the first time, and in November, the first T-7A was delivered to Edwards. The T-7A was designed to replace the service’s fleet of 1960s-era T-38 Talons. The same week, the first flight test of a B-21 Raider was conducted. The aircraft reportedly departed from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. In a press release, the Air Force stated that “flight testing is a critical first step in the test campaign managed by the Air Force Test Center and 412th Test Wing’s B-21 Combined Test Force.”

Among the milestones were breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. In July, the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio conducted the first flight of machine learning-trained AI algorithms on an XQ-58A Valkyrie, developed by AFRL and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. The flight built on the testing announced in February by DARPA that AI agents had piloted the X-62A research aircraft in a series of December 2022 flights. Conducted under DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution program, these flights demonstrated that AI-driven autonomy agents could perform advanced fighter maneuvers on the X-62A aircraft, including a live versus live engagement of an AI-controlled X-62A against a human-piloted F-16.

Progress also continued toward operational hypersonic weapons. In January, the Air Force and DARPA concluded the Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept program with the final flight of the Lockheed Martin version of the missile. Powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet, the vehicle met all objectives — traveling “at speeds greater than Mach 5, higher than 60,000 feet, and farther than 300 nautical miles,” DARPA said in a press release. The HAWC program significantly increased the amount of U.S. scramjet flight test data, and the missile technology was transitioned to the Air Force and Navy acquisition organizations.

There were several first flights in the area of hydrogen-electric propulsion. In January, ZeroAvia flew its modified Dornier 228 aircraft, and in March, Universal Hydrogen of California flew its modified De Havilland Dash 8. The companies applied similar risk mitigation strategies by replacing only one of the two turboprop engines on their aircraft with a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Flying from Moses Lake, Washington, Universal Hydrogen completed a five-flight campaign in June and then ferried the aircraft to the new test location in Mojave, California. ZeroAvia completed its initial campaign of 10 flights in July. Both companies are aiming to lower the emissions of today’s aircraft by selling kits for operators to retrofit their regional aircraft with hydrogen fuel cells and electric motors.   

Contributors: Cody Hydrick, Andrew Knoedler and Shawn Stephens

First flights and diverse applications headline 2023 activity