The U.S. Air Force’s Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) has been redesignated as the X-62A, according to the Air Force Materiel Command. The highly modified F-16 fighter has been operating for nearly 30 years as the NF-16D, the “N” signifying a permanent test modification. The aircraft’s redesignation reflects, in part, its years of testing in support of new technology development, but also highlights a new mission that is being added during a major upgrade for the aircraft.
As well as having a new and improved VISTA Simulation System installed, the X-62A is being fitted with the System for Autonomous Control of Simulation (SACS), which will support autonomy testing for the Skyborg program being run by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Skyborg is an autonomous capability being developed to enable a family of low-cost, teamed, unmanned aircraft to increase airborne “combat mass” alongside manned aircraft. The aim is to rapidly defeat or disrupt hostile threats in contested environments, as well as increase situational awareness and survivability.
The VISTA aircraft began life as a regular F-16D Block 30 but was modified for variable-stability research in 1992, first flying in its new guise on April 9. Among the unusual features was the addition of a central control column connected to the simulated flight control system (FCS), separate from the F-16’s regular FCS and its sidestick controller. In 1993 the aircraft's VISTA systems were removed and it was fitted with an Axisymmetric Vectoring Exhaust Nozzle (AVEN), and briefly became known as the NF-16D MATV (multi-axis thrust-vectoring), conducting a series of trials that researched the benefits of vectored thrust in air combat.
At the end of 1994 the AVEN was removed and the NF-16D was returned to VISTA configuration. It was handed over to simulation/test experts Calspan Corp. who, along with Lockheed Martin, continue to support the aircraft. For many years it has been operated by the Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base in California, providing students with experience of various flying conditions and handling characteristics. It has also been extensively used for research and testing for aircraft development and technological research.
“For more than two decades VISTA has been a vital asset for the USAF TPS and the embodiment of our goal to be part of the cutting edge of flight test and aerospace technology,” said William Gray, VISTA and TPS chief test pilot. “It has given almost a thousand students and staff members the opportunity to practise testing aircraft with dangerously poor flying qualities, and to execute risk-reduction flight test programs for advanced technologies.
“We have found ways to use VISTA that were not envisioned by the original designers, so we were running into frustrating limitations. The modifications will address these limitations and profoundly improve our ability to quickly and safely test an almost unlimited variety of radical control law configurations. Even so, the X-62A will continue to serve as a curriculum aircraft, and will be an even brighter symbol of our aspirations.”