By Kenji Thuloweit, 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 09, 2010
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The heart of the Air Force Flight Test Center turns 30 years old June 12. Ridley Mission Control Center was dedicated in 1980 with a small ribbon cutting ceremony. The control center, which was built for $6.5 million, is named for Col. Jackie L. Ridley, a former test pilot, engineer and architect of modern flight testing.
Colonel Ridley served as pilot and engineer for the Bell X-1 rocket plane, in which retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. General Yeager helped cut the ribbon during the dedication. Col. Ridley was killed in 1957 when the C-47 transport plane he was riding in crashed into a mountain in Japan. Before that, he spent nearly 10 years in the high desert working on several flight test projects, which has had an influence on flight testing today.
General Yeager said that supersonic flight may not have happened without Colonel Ridley. According to Colonel Ridley's Aviation Hall of Fame biography, General Yeager found at near supersonic speed, the Bell X-1's elevators, which are the movable part of the horizontal tail fins that raised and lowered the nose, became ineffective. Colonel Ridley determined, in that speed range, that the X-1's entire horizontal stabilizer could be adjusted for trim changes and be used for pitch control. His idea worked and the concept was eventually incorporated in all supersonic aircraft - the 'flying tail'.
Today, Ridley Mission Control continues to serve as the centerpiece for tracking and recording almost all flight test operations. Ridley can even record telemetry data from as far away as White Sands, N.M. In 30 years, as one could imagine, technological advances have made flight tests more efficient and expansive. Ridley Mission Control has been at the forefront of these advances.
"We used to use 35mm film and multiple sites called cinetheodolites to record flight tests on the range," said Larry Pratt, 412th Range Squadron, director of operations. "Literally miles of film were shot during the week, and sometimes in one day. After the processing of the film for projection, the finished "movies" were then returned to Ridley for frame-by-frame data reduction. That film ran at 20 frames per second and was read post-mission by film readers and then merged with precision radar data for the best estimated trajectory. Today, we use real-time and post flight Global Positioning System assets."
David Puckett, 412th Test Wing, Range Control chief, has been working at Edwards since Ridley opened and has witnessed the evolution of technology first-hand.
"One of the biggest advents I saw was digital electronics taking over from analog electronics," Mr. Puckett said. "By virtue of that change, I saw the evolution of the surveying telescopes we used - which I maintained - become moth-balled when GPS inertial aided tracking became available."
The center was, and still is, based on efficiency. Construction of Ridley Mission Control was commissioned in the late 70s to be a center for range and test mission control. Before that, each test squadron had its own range and control equipment which made coordination and data acquisition more complex and inefficient. Putting everything under one roof centralized an important part of the flight test process.
The numerous technological advances and equipment upgrades at Ridley have improved accuracy and the ability to record exponentially more data.
"Right before Ridley was commissioned, space positioning optical RADAR track controllers worked out of building 4970 on the hill," explained Mr. Puckett. "They had plot boards that used paper charts scribed with a two-axis plotting pen to show the position of an airplane as tracked by the radar. That's what they had when I was coming up as a young man. Each SPORT controller watched a single aircraft on the plot boards. Now, we can display 300 different aircraft trajectories on one digital monitor."
"The reliability of the systems is better today," said Diana Bladen, 412th RANS, range control officer. "The amount of time and efficiency we have gained in the ability to analyze data versus the time we used to spend just keeping the systems repaired is phenomenal. It's just like everything that has become digital and more convenient and reliable. We saw this revolution at Ridley Control Center firsthand."
Dedicating the mission control center to Colonel Ridley seemed only natural. While at Edwards, the Colonel rose from chief of the Test Engineering Branch to chief of the Flight Test Engineering Laboratory, where he made his greatest contributions. He established the basic testing techniques and philosophy of the flight test center. Colonel Ridley was designated as an "expert test pilot" and flew numerous aircraft including the P-51, B-25, C-47, B-26, B-29, F-86, X-1 and the X-4.
"The United States Air Force Test Pilot School has Col. Al Boyd, the 412th Range Squadron has Col. Jackie Ridley," said Mrs. Bladen. "The inspiration from legacies left by those who went before continues with the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Ridley Mission Control Center."
After three decades, Ridley Mission Control Center continues to live up to Colonel Ridley's legacy. Among the countless flight tests Ridley Mission Control has managed and recorded includes the testing of the first cruise missile, B-1, B-2 and the F-22. Ridley will now focus on another technological advancement, the state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter, which arrived last month.