Warlocks Help Turn Ground-Based Ideas into Airborne Reality

Photo by Jonna Atkinson


By Lt. Joey Case, USN

Scientific Development Squadron (VXS) 1 is the airborne research arm of the US Naval Research Laboratory using military and commercial-derivative aircraft for science and technology development to support the advancement of Navy capabilities. Located aboard Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, the VXS-1 Warlocks specialize in taking scientists and their projects airborne.

The relative proximity of the squadron to Washington, DC, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), as well as the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) flight test facilities, makes VXS-1’s current location the perfect venue for hosting Naval Research Enterprise airborne science and technology activities. The test facilities owned and operated by NAVAIR, co-located with VXS-1 at Patuxent River, provide access to state-of-the art instrumentation and dedicated open airspace to accommodate a broad range of operating altitudes and airspeeds.

Research scientists are able to install their equipment directly into specialized aircraft and then fly missions to collect data. This hands-on method of scientific research is vital in today’s ever-advancing technological environment. Being able to quickly test radars, cameras, and other types of technology in a representative environment is crucial to making time-critical strides in multiple fields. Flying with VXS-1 is a unique experience because of the squadron’s ability to quickly get scientists and projects into relevant environments for more accurate testing.

The Aircraft

The squadron boasts three modified P-3C Orion aircraft, an RC-12M Huron, a fleet of ScanEagle unmanned aircraft systems, and is expected to welcome a UV-18 Twin Otter in the coming months. The diversity of squadron aircraft and their unique science and technology modifications provide a wide range of platforms from which scientists may choose to meet their specific project needs.

All squadron aircraft provide research scientists the opportunity to fly with their research equipment. This allows them to view their data in real time, and if required, to adjust their equipment inflight for optimal use of their flight time. If the system under test is malfunctioning or simply not responding as expected, the scientist can make on-the-spot modifications, which increases the speed and cost effectiveness of the project by foregoing the need to land and retest on a different day.

The most-used aircraft in VXS-1 inventory is the all-weather, worldwide deployable P-3C. Its large flight envelope, 12- hour flight endurance, and modularity allow for research of all scales with plenty of space to install all required equipment. This aircraft has been deployed around the world, including combat theaters, to meet the specific needs of the research team. The aircraft interior is extremely adaptable, adding to its usefulness in the field of airborne scientific research.

For scientists with smaller projects, the RC-12M is a more cost-effective solution to meet their respective project needs. This aircraft is also premodified with a science and technology framework to accommodate necessary research equipment and has an endurance of up to six hours. It has flown projects that have included Tactical Common Data Link, buoy surveillance, and a plethora of radar and camera systems.

The squadron has one aircraft that is smaller still. VXS- 1 works with the small and only unmanned aircraft in its inventory, the ScanEagle. This aircraft is a Type III unmanned aerial system able to carry light payloads, can be launched from anywhere using its mobile launch and recovery system. It is a versatile platform for testing small research payloads such as cameras, GPS systems, or any small sensor package. VXS-1 oversees a small team in Dahlgren, Virginia, that operates the ScanEagles and can conduct flight tests for prospective research scientists.

In the coming months, a UV-18 Twin Otter with similar science and technology modifications will be added to the squadron inventory providing an additional platform for customers to fulfill their respective research needs. The UV-18 will be a very cost-effective and capable platform for the advancement of naval research over a wide range of specialty fields.

Anywhere in the World

In addition to the diversity of aircraft, flying with VXS-1 is beneficial because of its ability to fly projects anywhere in the world. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the squadron flew a multitude of missions locally in the Patuxent River operating areas, in the Atlantic Test Track Range, as well as all across the globe from Colorado to Guam to Kuwait. The ability to have worldwide presence further serves the needs of the Naval Research Enterprise by placing the aircraft in the required environment to best test the respective system and collect the necessary data.

A project nicknamed “Operation Duracell” is an example of VXS-1’s worldwide responsiveness to meeting customers’ needs. The squadron was called on short notice by an ONR scientist requesting delivery of a vital set of batteries for a research project occurring in Guam in two weeks’ time. VXS-1, not normally capable of performing cargo transport operations, was able to modify their aircraft and deliver the batteries on time leading to a successful unmanned undersea vehicle demonstration for the Pacific Command staff.

Rough Widow is another ONR-sponsored project that the squadron regularly supports. Implementing cutting-edge data fusion algorithms and a mix of sensors installed on the aircraft including electronic support measures, electro-optical sensors, and radar, the Rough Widow scientists were able to fuse the information from each system to create a comprehensive tactical picture. Using the squadron, Rough Widow completed preliminary testing off the coast of Maryland and flew the project to El Salvador to assist 4th Fleet in drug interdiction and to test the system in an actual operational environment. Proving the system’s worth, the squadron aircrew and ONR research team were able to use the sensor suite to transmit useful information off the aircraft that led to the seizure of more than $70 million in illegal cocaine. Not only were the scientists on board able to test and modify their equipment, they were able to contribute to a key line of effort for the Navy and US Southern Command, a task not easily achieved using contracted air services.

In addition to manned aircraft, VXS-1 also operates several unmanned systems, such as this ScanEagle. Photo by Jonna Atkinson

VXS-1’s association with deployed fleet squadrons enables access to worldwide locations making them a unique resource for the Naval Research Enterprise. A final example of the squadron’s capability to deploy aircraft in unique environments was project SNOWEX, a collaborative research initiative with NASA. During this project, the squadron aircrew used their expertise in deliberate operational risk management techniques to conduct research flights at low altitudes over mountainous terrain to measure water content of the snow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. They were also able to seamlessly integrate NASA’s specialized needs including the addition of a whole new nose radar dome.

VXS-1 is extremely adaptable in the types of projects it can perform and the diversity of locations from which it can operate. Whatever scientists and engineers need to advance their fields, VXS-1 can assist.

Serving Science and Warfighters

VXS-1 exists for a simple mission—to advance science and technology research and to accelerate future capabilities to the Navy and Marine Corps. With that singular focus in mind, the squadron provides professional aircrews and extremely capable aircraft to serve scientists and engineers and to help accomplish their missions. Passion of service drives the military and civilian members of the command, allowing them to flex and respond to better support each project’s specific, and often revolutionary, needs.

Projects can be installed in days, which is critical because of the fast-paced nature of the research and development field. This was never better exemplified than when the Warlocks flew an NRL team to Kuwait to advance scientific research in an operational environment and assist ground units engaged in combat. The squadron spent two months in theater flawlessly executing project SARGON using synthetic aperture radar to provide environmental information to ground forces. Rarely can scientists conduct their research in actual operational conditions, but flying with VXS-1 affords them that unique and invaluable opportunity.

As a division of NRL, VXS-1 can align its missions and goals with those of NRL, ONR, and the greater science and technology community. The squadron benefits from the administrative and financial support of NRL ensuring that personnel and aircraft are ready to safely execute future research missions. VXS-1 is at the forefront of accelerating technological research for the US Navy. It is one of the few places where research scientists can literally “takeoff” and watch their ideas turn into reality.

About the author:

Lt. Case is a naval flight officer and acting public affairs officer for VXS-1.

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