Air Force Secretary Kendall experiences VISTA of future flight test at Edwards

  • Published
  • By Gary Hatch and Mary Kozaitis
  • 412th Test Wing

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall visited Edwards Air Force Base on May 2 to visit with the Air Force Test Pilot School and to fly in the X-62A VISTA. The flight allowed Secretary Kendall to experience firsthand the unique aircraft, which incorporates machine learning and highly specialized software to test autonomous aerial combat flying and other cutting-edge capabilities. 

The day started at Test Pilot School for morning briefings and an open session with TPS students including international students from Australia, Canada, and Switzerland. 

“At my heart, I am an aerospace engineer,” Secretary Kendall said. “Returning to Edwards was high on my list for many reasons, getting to meet with the students and field their questions was a highlight. Our test and evaluation community laid the foundation for our technological edge by ensuring we can reliably and repeatedly push our platforms to the limit.  Meeting the pilots and scientists who will continue this tradition, and learning more about them, assures me we will continue to lead the way.”

After the morning session with students, briefings and preparations began for the X-62 flight.

The most potent feature of the X-62A – called VISTA for Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft – is its new capability to develop and test flying capabilities in real-time using machine learning and live agent integration. This technology was successfully tested through a collaboration with DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. The team was a finalist for the 2023 Robert J. Collier Trophy as an acknowledgement for their breakthrough efforts. 

“The potential for autonomous air-to-air combat has been imaginable for decades, but the reality has remained a distant dream up until recently. In 2023, the X-62A broke one of the most significant barriers in combat aviation. This is a transformational moment, all made possible by breakthrough accomplishments of the ACE team,” Secretary Kendall said.

The research division of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School leads overall program management responsibilities for the X-62A. The division’s primary focus is to lead research that accelerates multidomain capabilities for the warfighter, while embracing challenges to rapidly test novel technologies.

About four years ago the team set out to improve VISTA’s already unique test-training capabilities, which historically allowed it to simulate another aircraft’s flying characteristics, but they didn’t stop there. They created a new capability altogether – one that did not yet exist in the Department of Defense. They saw the possibility to transform VISTA into a vehicle for incorporating and testing artificial intelligence theory through real-time use of live agents. 

VISTA’s initial capabilities were reimagined, reworked and fundamentally expanded, culminating in an upgrade that was completed in 2022 and featured three new highly specialized software suites with significantly more computing power to make it all work.

During Secretary Kendall’s flight, the X-62A conducted a variety of tactical maneuvers utilizing live agents that responded in real-time to a simulated threat. Sitting in the front seat, the controls of the X-62A remained untouched by both Secretary Kendall and the safety pilot in the backseat throughout several test runs against an adversary aircraft.

“Before the flight, there was no shortage of questions from teammates and family about flying in this aircraft,” Secretary Kendall said. “For me, there was no apprehension, even as the X-62 began to maneuver aggressively against the hostile fighter aircraft. The flight reinforced my belief that we have made meaningful progress in advancing autonomous military aviation. In the not too distant future, there will be two types of Air Forces—those who incorporate this technology into their aircraft and those who do not and fall victim to those who do.  We are in race, we must keep running and I am confident we will do so.”