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The AFTI F-16 phase I tests began following its arrival at Dryden on July 15, 1982. The initial flights checked out the airplane's stability and control systems.These included a triplex digital flight control computer system, and the two triangular "chin" canards mounted under the aircraft's intake, which form an inverted "V"-shape. These canards allow the AFTI F-16 to make flat turns. By late December 1982, tests began of the Voice Command System. This allowed the pilot to change switch positions, display formats, and modes simply by saying the correct word. The initial tests were of the system's ability to recognize words.
Later tests were made under increasing levels of noise, vibrations, and G-forces. These showed a 90 percent success rate. Later tests were also made of a helmet-mounted sight. The AFTI F-16's 100th flight was made on July 15, 1983. The phase I tests concluded soon after, and on July 30, 1983, the aircraft left Dryden and was flown back to the General Dynamics facility at Fort Worth, Texas. In all, 118 flights had been made, totaling 177.3 hours of flight time.
The AFTI F-16 returned to Dryden on August 6, 1984, after undergoing modifications for the phase II flights. These tested the Automatic Maneuvering Attack System (AMAS). This was a combined laser and video tracker which allowed a pilot to lock on and drop his weapons on a target that was off-set from the airplane's flight path. Normally, the pilot would have to dive toward the target. The two sensors were mounted on tubes placed next to the fuselage on the wings. The phase II flight rate was quite high. From the start of the AMAS tests in August 1984 to the beginning of 1987, a total of 226 research flights were made. Of these, 160 were flown in 1986 alone. To sustain the high flight rate, a two-shift operation of the ground crew was required.
The AFTI F-16 was returned to General Dynamics in mid-1987 for installation of a data link and repair work. This took seven months, and the aircraft returned to Dryden on January 22, 1988. At that time, a close-air support test program was planned, but the schedule was uncertain. This finally began in the summer of 1991, and was focused on demonstrating technologies to find and destroy ground targets by day or night, and in bad weather. This made use of low altitude and maneuvering, and was known as close air support and battlefield air interdiction.
One change to the aircraft for this series of tests was the addition of two forward-looking infrared turrets. They were mounted on the nose, just ahead of the canopy, and looked like two bulging eyes. As part of these tests, three different night vision helmets. As the pilot moved his head, the turrets follow his line-of-sight and transmits their images to eyepieces in his helmet. A more visible change was the removal of the two canards. The AFTI F-16 now looked more like a standard F-16. A major part of the test effort was to enable a pilot to operate his aircraft and hit targets at low altitudes in darkness and bad weather. Several methods were tested. One was a digital terrain map stored in the F-16's computer.
The other, called the advanced terrain following, was simpler. It used the F-16's radar altimeter to scan the terrain ahead of the aircraft to go over or around obstacles. Both systems had minimum altitude settings. When the system calculates that the aircraft was about to drop below this setting, they automatically took over control, and pulled up. The advanced terrain following system was also connected to the AMAS, which allowed the pilot to drop bombs from 500 feet in a 5 G turn, or fly 80 feet above the ground at 500 knots. There was also a separate Pilot Activated Recovery System. If the pilot became disoriented, he only had to pull a trigger switch on the stick. This caused the flight control computer to automatically recover the aircraft, and put it into a wings-level climb.
The AFTI F-16 left Dryden for the last time on November 4, 1997. Over a period of 15 years, it had made more than 700 research flights. Although no longer used by NASA, it continued to be used for test missions. Its final project was as the hardware and software testbed for the X-35 Joint Strike Fight prototype. On January 9, 2001, the AFTI F-16 was retired to the Air Force Museum.