85th Test and

Evaluation Squadron

"The Skulls"

Eglin AFB, Florida

***The following is an excerpt from The Viper Story, Part II: Test & Training F-16s, available from Reid Air Publications.***

Located at Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle of Florida, the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron reports to the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, which, in turn, is part of the 53rd Wing. The 53TEG, headquartered at Nellis AFB, Nevada, is one of the largest and most diverse organizations in the United States Air Force. With six flying squadrons assigned (each at a different base), along with several direct-reporting detachments at seventeen US bases, it is also one of the busiest. The 53TEG is assigned the mission of operational test and evaluation, tactics development, and evaluation projects that have been handed down by Headquarters, Air Combat Command.

Unlike other test missions flown at Eglin AFB and Edwards AFB, the 85TES is responsible for Operational Test (OT), as opposed to Developmental Test (DT). The difference is in the mission flown. By the time a new test subject arrives at the 85TES for testing, it has already been deemed safe to fly/operate by either the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB, California, or the 46th Test Wing, which shares space in the same building at Eglin with the 85TES. While these units perform test missions to certify a new weapon, software package, etc, for use by USAF and coalition aircraft, the 85TES will begin flying with the new equipment, as well. Lt. Col. Beau “Ripple” Booth, an 85TES Viper pilot, explains, “The 85th gets involved relatively early in the DT process – as soon as the Edwards guys pronounce the new software/hardware safe to fly, we usually get to start flying with it as well. In this case, we usually won’t execute any formal test missions, but we’ll fly with it on day-to-day training missions and provide our input for any issues we’ve noted to Lockheed and the Edwards guys for potential inclusion in future software/hardware versions.” Once the 46TW or 412TW completes the DT process, it then becomes the job of the 85TES to learn how to best use the new equipment in a realistic combat environment. According to Lt. Col. Sam “Boomer” Shaneyfelt, the 85TES Commander, this is the key difference between the OT and DT missions. “The important distinction is that we take the stuff out and fight with it in an operationally representative way. An item may pass all the requirements for DT but be useless because the warfighter will never use it if it isn’t suitable. That’s’ our job: screen things so the warfighter doesn’t have to. If it’s bad, we send it back to the drawing board.”

To perform this mission, the 85TES is assigned F-15Cs, a single F-15E, and Block 40 and 50 F-16C/Ds. Although slightly modified for the test mission with added telemetry equipment, for the most part, they are identical to those aircraft found in the USAF fleet. Most show signs of previous test duties: The F-15E has had its internal gun removed, while the F-16s have all undergone the recent CCIP upgrade (Common Configuration Implementation Program). CCIP is an ongoing test subject performed by the 85TES.

Besides the warm-weather climate, ample sunshine, and white-sand beaches, Eglin AFB is blessed with ample range space. No less than 86,000 acres are available to 85TES pilots. The range is made up of areas over land and over water to give the test mission plenty of space in which to work. Everything from live-missile air-air shoots, air-surface shoots, BFM (Basic Fight Maneuvers), TI (Tactical Intercepts), and air-air refueling can be performed inside the confines of the ranges. The ranges, although large in size, are in huge demand. They are shared by the 85TES and several other units at Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB, Hurlburt Field, NAS Pensacola, and others. Time over the ranges is allotted by a “first-come, first-serve” basis.

The 85TES calls upon a select group of pilots. All have previous experience with an operational, combat-coded, fighter squadron, and most have combat experience. Half are graduates of the prestigious USAF Weapons School. In addition, all are Instructor Pilot qualified. While all are technically “test pilots”, most still think of themselves as fighter pilots on a test assignment. Lt. Col. Shaneyfelt adds, “In fact, my new-guy speech tells them that I want fighter pilots who test rather than test pilots who fly fighters. Perfecting lethality requires my guys to be on their “A” game and at the peak of their proficiency. If they aren’t, then we fail the Combat Air Forces who we support.” After their tour at the 85TES is over, most pilots will return to combat squadrons to pick up where they left off before their tour at Eglin.

Some of the recent test missions performed by the 85TES have involved the new BRU-55 “smart rack” on the F-16, GBU-38 JDAM on the F-16 and F-15E, AIM-9X, improved versions of the AIM-120, and Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod with video downlink. Most of these programs have now reached the field and have seen use in combat, giving a great sense of accomplishment to those in the 85TES that performed the test missions. Currently, the impetus is on testing new software upgrades to the F-16s’ mission computers to increase their capabilities. The latest versions of the software, Operational Flight Program (OFP) version 4.2, 4.3, and 5.1, offer tangible improvements over earlier versions. Lt. Col. Shaneyfelt adds, “We just fielded the latest MMC 4.2. This now gives us the unique capability to hang an HTS pod and Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP) on the same aircraft. Essentially, we can range in an enemy SAM, pass the coordinates to the ATP, then send a 2000 lb. high-explosive crowd pleaser to shut them down.”

Besides the test mission, 85TES pilots often find themselves in a teaching situation. Other units will occasionally send a pilot or two to the 85TES for instruction on employing the new weapons, software, etc. Recently, B-1 crews from the 53TEG’s 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron from Dyess AFB, Texas, were sent to Eglin to learn the fine art of employing the Sniper targeting pod on their B-1. Similarly, pilots from the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) recently spent time with the 85TES to train on JHMCS (Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System) use.

In addition to the test missions flown at their home base, 85TES pilots will frequently travel to operational squadrons to teach what they’ve learned during the test programs. Lt. Col. Booth explains, “We’ll travel to every operational unit whenever we field a new system, assuming that system requires major changes to their tactics. While we’re there, we’ll give them academics on both how to make the new stuff work correctly, and how to best employ it in combat. We’ll also fly with their instructors to teach them how to teach their squadrons how to use the new stuff.” This sharing of information further ensures that the knowledge gained by the 85TES during test missions is disseminated throughout the USAF.

Despite the recent downsizing of the military, operations at the 85TES are expected to remain constant, if not increase. The USAF will always have a need for testing new equipment. When the need arises, they can count on the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron to get the job done.

Without the assistance of many, this article would not be possible. I’d like to express my deep gratitude to Lt. Col. Sam “Boomer” Shaneyfelt, Lt. Col. Beau “Ripple” Booth, Lt. Col. Paul “Coma” Villem, MSgt Drew Leonhard, and the entire Skull team. The men and women of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron are ultimate professionals excelling at a very demanding job.