As the 27th P-8A Poseidon sub-hunter landed June 2 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, HTii’s Fred Sharron was already planning its next flight. “We do our best to maximize project test time,” said Sharron, P-8 aircraft coordinator for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VX-1).
The new P-8A, dubbed LRIP (low rate initial production) 4-1, is the third in the VX-1 fleet and the latest model delivered from the Boeing assembly line. A highly modified version of the Boeing 737 jetliner, the P-8A is replacing the venerable P-3C Orion, a propeller-driven anti-submarine airplane that first entered service in 1962.
LRIP 4-1 was loaned to VX-1 from the Fleet, “so we could test the most up-to-date version,” Sharron said. “It’s got the latest software and avionics packages.”
VX-1 carries out operational testing (OT) on Navy airplanes and helicopters that conduct maritime patrol, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare and airborne command and control. OT duplicates as closely as possible the conditions the aircraft will operate under when it goes into service. Testing is required not just for aircraft, but for new or modified systems carried onboard and updated tactics, techniques and procedures developed for Fleet use.
“Everything in these aircraft that goes out to the Fleet comes through here first,” Sharron said.
Even if a test involves only a small upgrade to an onboard electronic system, it requires a lot of background planning and coordination, Sharron said. “I’m the man behind the scenes.”
He’s much more than that, according to VX-1’s Operational Test Director (OTD), Squadron Leader Chris Perks. “Here’s how we measure him,” said Perks, an exchange officer from the UK Royal Air Force. “Sometimes you don’t even notice he’s around – until he’s not here. “
Perks said that Sharron confers continually with all departments involved in aircraft testing, including the OTD office, the Integrated Test Team (ITT) and the maintenance personnel who install and configure systems in the aircraft.
“He doesn’t just do it by phone either,” Perks said. “He walks around and talks to everyone in person. The little nuggets of information he picks up are invaluable.”
A retired command senior chief, Sharron spent his 26-year career working on a variety of Navy aircraft, including the P-3C. Before he came to Pax River, his duty stations included Lemoore, California, Brunswick, Maine, and Jacksonville, Florida. “I’ve been in the maritime patrol business for quite a while,” he said.
The upcoming P-8A tests Sharron will be coordinating include an upgrade to the aircraft’s Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC) system. Both the P-8A and P-3C eject sonobuoys into the water, where they float below the surface to send out sonar “pings” and listen for enemy submarines. Unlike current sonobuoy technology, the MAC system can cover a larger area by varying the number, waveform and duration of the pings, allowing more precise location of the reflecting target.
“Here are the kinds of things I need to coordinate for a test like this,” Sharron said. “Do we have the buoys we need? Is the flight clearance up to date? Do we have the airspace we need?”
Many aircraft flying out of Pax River conduct test operations over the Atlantic in reserved airspace. The airspace is divided into grids, with sections assigned to aircraft for specific operations.
“I have to confirm that we have exclusive use of that piece of the airspace during our test period,” Sharron said.
Also on LRIP 4-1’s test schedule are a new software version, Fleet-Release 35, and an improved mission avionics system, the Data Storage Architecture Upgrade (DSAU).
“The upgrades have saved a lot of weight,” Sharron said. “They took out outdated components, downsized the system and created a quicker response time.”
The DSAU upgrade is not a new capability for the P-8A, Perks noted. “It’s comparable to upgrading your hard drive for a computer – same machine, just more storage space and more efficient.”
Besides testing the DSAU’s effectiveness, VX-1 also will test its vulnerabilities. A cybersecurity team will enter the airplane and plug in test equipment to determine if the DSAU can be disturbed by electronic signals or penetrated by viruses or malware.
Other tests on the LRIP 4-1 aircraft will include VCDs – verification of correction of deficiencies, Perks said. “These are problems that were found in the past, we think they’ve been fixed, and now we’re retesting them to make sure.”
VX-1 will also be checking other systems that have not been changed to see if they’re still operating properly. That’s referred to as testing “regression,” Perks said, “to make sure no systems have unintentionally been degraded.”
To date, 27 P-8As have been delivered from Boeing’s Seattle, Washington, plant. Boeing is currently under contract for a total of 53 P-8As, and the Navy may ultimately purchase 117 all together. The Navy plans on using the P-8A alongside the large unmanned MQ-4C Triton aircraft, which has nearly the same wingspan.
“The P-8A is already a hugely capable aircraft,” Perks said, “but what strikes me is the massive growth potential.”
In particular, Perks points to the P-8A’s potential to expand its communications capability. “I can really see a vector,” he said. “What’s most exciting are the newer communication technologies – the expanded connectivity that will let us share all our information in real time.”
VX-1 will keep LRIP 4-1 busy on test missions during its short stay at Pax, but the aircraft will eventually end up on maritime patrol duty.
“What we’re doing is using it on temporary loan,” Perks said. “We’ll give it back to the Fleet at the end of September.”
Meanwhile, P-8 Aircraft Coordinator Sharron will continue his critical work behind the scenes coordinating the aircraft’s test operations. “He’s really appreciated,” Perks said. “He’s the glue that holds everything together.”