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96th Test Group brings 'R2-D2' to life

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) -- Remotely tucked away in the high desert of southern New Mexico, the 96th Test Group provides some of the most sophisticated military testing in the world. Often, their innovations and technological pursuits seem like works of science fiction, such as the group's latest project dubbed affectionately as 'R2-D2.’

Second Lt. Troy Biersack, a 746th Test Squadron program manager, explained the project began from a need to design a platform that could serve to perform high-dynamic testing of new GPS technology inside the 56 year-old T-38 Talon.

The culmination of efforts across the 96th TG led to the creation of a rear cockpit mounted electronics package reminiscent of the beloved Star Wars’ robot.

"The similarities between our RCP and R2-D2 would be that it's in the rear seat and it's got this funny little cap on the top which functions as an antenna," Biersack described. "We started jokingly referring to it as R2-D2 as the project developed, and it just stuck."

Building the RCP required careful coordination. The 746th TS performed program management, test management, integration of equipment and ground test data analysis, while the 846th TS managed the mechanical design and fabrication. Finally, the 586th FTS led the flight certification process and coordinated the installation and removal of the RCP.

"It is a point of collective pride that the squadrons each possess such unique capabilities, yet they work so well together," Biersack said. "Our leadership is promoting innovation and cohesion. This dynamic exists across the squadrons, enabling us to quickly identify and leverage the correct talent."

Biersack served as the program manager for the RCP project, overseeing each phase of development between squadrons to ensure the process was seamless.

"My charge was to maintain program vector and momentum while standing clear of the experts. I was responsible for budget, for keeping it on track and holding people accountable to getting things done on time," he said.

As Biersack explained, one of the unique challenges of the project was designing a rack that could fit inside the aging T-38 without negatively affecting the pre-existing conditions of the aircraft. The 746th TS developed the requirements to construct the RCP. The 846th Test Squadron then began to work on the mechanical design and fabrication of the rack.

"When the fabricated rack arrived from the 846th, for us it was one of the biggest moments of the entire project," Biersack said. "It was such a great feeling to see how far we'd come, and to bear the fruits of our labor in such a tangible way."

Once fabricated, the RCP then had to undergo a series of ground testing and safety reviews before it could become airborne.

Erin Morgenstern, a 746th TS unit test safety manager, explained that their biggest priority was to ensure that installing the rack would not interfere with the aircraft's ejection system.

"The pilots had to change their ejection settings in order for the gas lines to cooperate with the RCP,” Morgenstern said. “We had to make sure there were no hazards to the aircrew upon ejection and that the equipment stayed with plane also so there could be no mid-air collisions."

Finally, once the equipment had been checked out, the RCP was sent to the 586th FTS so it could be flown in the T-38 for initial flight testing.

"The moment it all came to together, the big 'Kumbaya,’ was the eight sorties that were flown by the 586th went off without a hitch,” Biersack said. Seeing the data from our analysts showing that this rack is just as good as the rack we're replacing it with."

As it all came together, the members of the RCP project could see their own little piece of science-fiction forming before their eyes.

"In order to accomplish something like this, you've got to chip away at it bit by bit, piece by piece," Biersack said. "And sometimes it's amazing to just look back, pick your head up from the grind and see everything that's been accomplished."