Teaming with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Night Vision Center of Excellence of Mesa, Ariz., the Air Mobility Battlelab saw a way to aid Stratotanker aircrews to see in the dark through the KC-135 Exterior Night Vision Imaging System-compatible Lighting initiative.
“The tanker’s exterior lighting is not currently compatible with night vision goggle operations which limits the receiver’s ability to use their night vision systems during air refueling operations,” said Master Sgt. Chris Sidoli, the AMB’s project manager for the initiative and a career boom operator in both the KC-135 and the KC-10 Extender. “Our solution is simple – modify tanker aircraft with night vision-friendly exterior lighting and night vision-compatible interior lighting for the boom pod. This can have an immediate impact for our tanker forces in the deployed theater.”
In working with AFRL’s Night Vision Center, a light-emitting diode, or LED-based system was designed to replace the KC-135’s wing and tail navigation lights, boom nozzle light, upper and lower strobes and pilot director lights without any internal aircraft wiring changes. Inside the boom operator compartment at the tail of the plane, night vision-friendly LED flood lights were added and some cockpit and boom pod switches were replaced to facilitate multi-mode operations.
“The idea is to make air refueling at night safer,” Sergeant Sidoli said. “Right now, during night-time air refueling operations in ‘black-out’ conditions, pilots in aircraft receiving fuel have to remove their night vision goggles prior to an air refueling to prevent required visual references from being ‘washed out’ or obscured in the night vision goggle image. Also, current external lighting on the aircraft is easily detected by ground threats using the unaided eye. Correcting these deficiencies has a direct impact on mission accomplishment and safety in flight.”
A demonstration with the modifications on a KC-135 was held in August 2007 out of Phoenix Sky International Airport, Ariz., with KC-135s from the 161st Air Refueling Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard.
“In setting this up, we looked for low cost, commercial and government off-the-shelf lighting technology to make the KC-135 exterior and boom pod interior lighting selectively night vision-compatible yet undetectable to the unaided eye,” Sergeant Sidoli said. “Then the AFRL stepped in and designed and installed the lighting solutions. To save time and cost, and to decrease risk, lighting luminance assessments were done in a controlled laboratory environment prior to hardware installation on the KC-135 used for the demonstration.”
Once the aircraft was configured with applicable lighting for each phase of the demonstration, Sergeant Sidoli said lighting luminance assessments were conducted in a light-tightened hangar that was as fully darkened as conditions would allow and served as a controlled environment.
Throughout the demonstration, they completed objectives on lighting for the pilot director indicator and boom nozzle, boom pod interior, wing tip and navigation lights and upper and lower strobe lights.
“Overall, the demonstration proved the changes could work,” Sergeant Sidoli said. “This initiative showed that a low-cost night vision lighting alternative is out there and is feasible. We found that a night vision lighting system can eliminate the time necessary for receiver pilots to don or doff their night vision equipment while performing night-time air refueling operations. This is an improved capability when compared to the current operations in the field.”
Further flight testing of the equipment that was designed and developed by AFRL may be required, however Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lathrop, AMB commander, has recommended this initiative for fielding.
“The National Guard Bureau and other agencies are pursuing funding to accomplish flight and environmental testing on the night vision lighting system,” Colonel Lathrop said. “It is AMB’s recommendation this initiative be considered for fielding by Air Mobility Command as resources allow and requirements dictate.”
The Air Mobility Battlelab was established in 2001 to identify and demonstrate the utility of innovative concepts with potential to enhance Mobility Air Force capabilities. AMB will deactivate in September 2008 as part of an Air Force cost-savings initiative.