Wednesday, September 30, 2015

PAX River 2015

The longer I'm working this second career of mine, as a Government Civilian doing analysis work for the Navy, the more places I seem to travel.  While Washington DC is a usual destination for me, either at the Pentagon for budget discussions with OPNAV (Naval Operations), or at the Washington Navy Yard for meetings about the status of various programs I'm involved in.  The other frequent stop is Panama City Florida, where all the Mine Countermeasures (MCM) systems are developed and tested.  However, I had a short trip out east last week, to one place I didn't expect to ever visit - the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.  PAX River for short.

I was there for an Office of Naval Research (ONR) S&T Unmanned Underwater Systems Demonstration - PAX River 2015.  If the Navy needs a capability that isn't currently met by our weapon systems, and the technology isn't something we can just buy off the shelf, that's where ONR steps in.  They help to develop new technologies- from the drawing board to a prototype system, then pushing them to the Program Offices at the Navy Yard or NAVAIR in PAX, for further refinement and testing.

Normally, the testing and demos for unmanned underwater systems is done off SoCal or in the warm waters in Panama City. However, the Pax River area provides these vehicles with some challenging environments that the developers don't always get- high currents, high chance of (simulated) mine burial in silt or mud, brackish water, cluttered bottoms, etc.  I was there to see some of the future MCM systems during either their mid-term or final exams before they transition out of the S&T world.

Pax River is home to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).  It's a surprising destination for me because there are no Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) entities in Pax, and it's those folks whom I work with for the development of MCM equipment.

NAVAIR Headquarters
Unfortunately, it was a quick trip- 2 days in and out, so I barely had time to visit this place.

Since most Naval Air testing is done in Pax, and some versions of those aircraft don't make it to the fleet, the Pax River Naval Air Museum seems to get first dibs.  They have quite a few of either prototypes, or fleet aircraft once used by one of the test squadrons on base.

Boeing X-32 
This is Boeing's attempt at winning the Joint Strike Fighter contract- the X-32 Guppy.  Ok, it wasn't really called the guppy, but it looks so much like one that it was bound to lose.  I just can't see our front-line US Fighter aircraft looking that dorky.  Speaking of which, the S-3B Viking behind the guppy was a test bird from VX-1.   The museum also has Lockheed's X-35 which became the F-35.

It's a pretty small museum, but it's jam-packed with exhibits, including this refueling pod, which made me a bit nostalgic.  I have some experience in using these things as the Viking was the sole tanker for CVW-5, and the primary one when I was in CVW-11.

This is the mother of all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)- the Drone ASW Helicopter or DASH.   The original DASH concept was a light drone helicopter that could release a nuclear depth charge or torpedoes. The aircraft was considered expendable.

The Eagle Eye Tilt-Rotor UAS was Bell Helicopter's attempt at staying relevant in the UAV world.  In 2002, the aircraft was scheduled for further development by the USCG, but funds have since been pulled back and the program has languished. 

JSF Helmet

S-3 Viking Ejection Seat

T-45 Goshawk Cockpit 
I wish I had had more time to visit the museum, which is expanding into the building concept below this fall.  That will probably expand their available exhibits.  The building is actually complete now and sits right in front of the other museum, just outside the Pax River NAS main gate.

If you'd like to see more, watch the video from the museum website.

Pax River is also home to several test squadrons and the US Navy Test Pilot School.  TPS is probably one of the more interesting squadrons a Pilot or NFO can be a member of as the type of work can be exciting and the variety of aircraft they can fly is extensive.  In total, TPS has 12 different aircraft types.  
The United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) provides instruction to experienced pilots, flight officers and engineers in the theory, processes and techniques of aircraft and systems test and evaluation. Graduating students use this expertise in the acquisition community, working on aircraft and weapons systems, performing flight test and managing introduction of new assets to the fleet.                                                                                                                                                     NAVAIR

A Lieutenant who worked for me recently left San Diego for TPS.  He flew the MH-53E in the fleet, but is soon to complete his transition to the MH-60S.  At TPS he's already flown the OH-58C Kiowa, the UH-60A/L Black Hawk, and the UH-72A Lakota.  When we spoke, he said that the Lakota was a blast to fly because of its aerobatic capabilities. 

UH-72A Lakota on the USNTPS Flight Line                                NAVAIR Photo

Due to the UUV demonstration schedule, my timing was too short to get a tour of the squadron so I was only able to get a few distant photos, or ones of the static displays in front of the school house. 

TH-6B Cayuse, also known as the Little Bird in SpecOps circles.  This was replaced by the Lakota.

The flight line has an even more interesting mix.  From the parking lot I was able to see several T-38s, T-6 Texans, a Lear-jet, and even a NU-1B Otter.  That aircraft is over 60 years old, but looks to be in excellent condition.  The school uses it to train test pilots in low speed aircraft handling characteristics.

I otter get a better camera for these long distance photos.

U-6A Beaver                                                         NAVAIR Photo

They also have a U-6A Beaver, which is used to tow another interesting aircraft not found in any other Navy squadron- an X-26 Frigate Sailplane. 

Pax River is also where the Joint Strike Fighter is being tested.  On the first day there, It flew over me every few minutes as it went around the pattern, but I couldn't get a better picture than this.  

Two of the 4 JSFs I could see as I drove past.

Air Test and Evaluation Squadron ONE or VX-1 is on the base as well.  The PIONEERS do most of the Operational Testing for non-strike aircraft, like the MH-60 Romeo and Sierra variants, the P-8 Poseidon, P-3C Orion, and E-2D Hawkeye, all of which they have in their stable.  But they also provide testing support for the EP-3 Aries II, E-6B Mercury, KC-130J Hercules, and the MQ-8B Fire Scout, RQ-121A Blackjack and Triton Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  I've always had more than a passing interest in VX-1 as it was the squadron that developed the SSU I've written about before, and several former squadron-mates took orders here for their first shore duty after their initial fleet tour.  One such LT went on the be an Astronaut after being accepted into TPS while in VX-1.

I've always liked this Hank Caruso caricature, which shows the variety of VX-1 aircraft.

Well, that's about all my pictures from the trip so I'll close for today.  As it turns out, I'll be traveling again next week, to another base I have yet to visit as a civilian- the Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island.  Maybe I'll find time to visit someone who lives not far from there.

Sunrise over Pax River NAS


  1. Great post Tuna. I have to add PAX River to my list of places I just have to visit!

  2. Great Pics, Tuna. Never made it over there during my tour in the area. Wish I had.

    Wanna bet that if Murph has visited the museum, his prints are on the Viking Ejection seat?

    1. Do I know Murph? Name doesn't ring a bell.

  3. I never made it there either, during my 'whirlwind' tour in the Navy. Four years just wasn't long enough to see the places I might have. Woulda coulda shoulda, I guess. Thanks for the pix, though - it's good to see what's going on there.

  4. I might want to visit there, too.
    I served in a ship that had the DASH, but only in theory.
    I have never actually seen one up close and personal, just pictures.

  5. RE the X-32 "Guppy" and how an aircraft "looks," I would point out that tests consistently have shown that the best color scheme for night fighters is a pinkish grey (the Germans--natch--used it in WW II) but when it came time to choose a color for the F-117 & the B2 the USAF chose the far less effective "midnight black" because real men "don't fly pink airplanes." Would be funny if it didn't actually put lives at risk..

    1. Hi vx:

      Good to " see " you around.


    2. Pink might have been better for low visibility, but now it's all about low Radar Cross Section and non-reflectivity of paint. The brits and russkies don't seem to have a problem flying ugly things so I suppose our pilots would have gotten used to it.

    3. Tuna/

      All true, but when one is over a large city w. the sky lit up with explosions and searchlights optical viz becomes more impt. And there are actually very few nights when the skies are totally inky black. A black paint scheme actually makes the ac stand out when viewed from below under less than totally black conditions. "Bombers Moon" anyone?

  6. I'd love to see usage and reliability data on all MCM systems built, demonstrated and fielded since 1952. It must be hard working in such a dismal colossus of a place. I'm glad you were able to break free and get out into the wilds of naval aviation again. :)

    1. MCM might be a tad dismal, but it's good work! The transformation from ship-based MCM to LCS off-board systems is painful, but we'll get there eventually. It was VERY good to get back to a NAS and see jets and other flying things. UUVs are a little boring.

  7. I wonder if the S-3 in the picture is the one I installed an old MAD paper recorder from a P-3B. The guys doing the OP-Eval needed a paper record of the MAD tests and had no way back then to transcribe from the plane's computer tapes. I got my one and only S-3 flight when we transferred a bird to a VS at North Island. IIRC, we made the trip non-stop from PAX to NI. VX-1 was probably the best time of my Navy career with lots of fun travel and many interesting projects.

  8. Wish I'd known you were in town. Would have loved to have met up with you for lunch.

    1. Ditto for the visit! I was actually helping in the hangar the first few days, setting up the data collection/storage drives. The little office with all of the black boxes inside. My boss's dad runs that facility. Wish I'd known you were here!


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