High above Lake Ontario, a red and white Lear jet trails an Air Force refueling tanker.
When a computer system aboard the jet is activated, the jet moves into specific positions around the tanker, without the guidance of the jet's pilots.
These flight tests, which took place over a restricted area of Lake Ontario during the past two years, are designed ultimately to help unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military fly longer missions, by enabling them to be refueled in midair. Cheektowaga-based Calspan Corp. has a significant role in the project.
Calspan's Lear jet, packed with computer equipment, acted as an unmanned aerial vehicle in a simulated rendezvous with a refueling plane. Calspan pilots flew the jet until the engineers in the back seats activated the system that controlled the jet's maneuvers. Calspan's "safety pilots" handled the takeoffs and landings, and were ready to take over if problems arose during the tests.
Calspan is part of a government and industry team that includes Boeing working on the Automated Aerial Refueling program for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Calspan installed the equipment in the jet and provided flight operations and logistical support.
When perfected, the technology will allow unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to autonomously fly up to a refueling boom extended from a tanker.
By refueling in midair, instead of having to land first as they now must do, they can fly for longer periods and respond more quickly in time-sensitive situations, said Jake Hinchman, Automated Aerial Refueling program manager at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.
The computer system is obviously complex, since it is responsible for moving a pilotless vehicle close to a refueling tanker and then following the bigger plane safely through its holding pattern.
"The goal is to be able to fly something without a pilot in it within 40 feet of a manned vehicle," Hinchman said.
Calspan's work on the project has been valuable, allowing the system to be tested under safe conditions, Hinchman said. "They have really played a major part in our program and have been a good teammate with us."
Hinchman also gave credit to the locally based New York Air National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing, which flew the tanker during the test flights.
Pilotless aircraft have become an important part of military operations in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, providing U.S. forces with surveillance capabilities as well as performing combat roles.
"They're an eye in the sky," said Louis Knotts, president of Calspan and one of the test pilots.
The UAV refueling system project suits a key part of Calspan's business. The company has a fleet of Lear jets based at its Flight Research Group facility at the Niagara Falls International Airport that are known as "in-flight" simulators. The jets can be adjusted to fly like other types of aircraft for testing purposes. "They are very easy to modify," said Norman Weingarten, Calspan's in-flight simulation and AAR program manager.
Calspan began working on the Automated Aerial Refueling program in March 2004, and has been awarded $2.98 million in contracts related to that program. Its most recent test flights with the system over Lake Ontario occurred last summer.
Calspan will work on the next phase of flights in 2008, though those tests will likely occur at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Weingarten said.
While the technology tests will benefit the military's use of unmanned vehicles, Calspan officials say the program has also provided a boost to Buffalo Niagara and Calspan, as well.
When the tests were conducted, government and industry representatives from different locations would routinely gather here for the project, giving them a firsthand view of the region, Knotts said.
The tests also had an economic impact on the region, Weingarten said. He estimated that each person who traveled here to work on the project contributed about $1,000 over the course of a week to the local economy, through expenses such as lodging, rental cars and food.
Knotts is also hopeful that the partners involved in the aerial refueling project will come away with a positive impression of Calspan's facility, its capabilities, and the efficiency of conducting flight tests from the Niagara Falls airport.
"We're hoping it's going to pay dividends in the future with follow-on programs," he said.