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20 year old NF-16D VISTA redesignated an ‘X’ Plane to test Skyborg

September 6, 2021 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The USAF is currently upgrading a modified version of its F-16 fighters, the NF-16D VISTA, to support autonomy testing for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Skyborg program. The Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) redesignated the NF-16D Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft in June as the X-62A.

The Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft (VISTA) flies in the skies over Edwards AFB, shortly after receiving its new paint scheme in early 2019. The aircraft was resdesignated from NF-16D to the X-62A on June 14th, 2021. [USAF photo by Christian Turner]

The VISTA started life as a block 30 F-16D and has been heavily modified and upgraded since its first flight in 1992 to give pilots a way to simulate different flying conditions as well as the characteristics of other aircraft. Throughout its life, it has received numerous upgrades and modifications. VISTA was originally given the N prefix to denote its status as Special Test, Permanent. The N prefix indicates aircraft on a special test program whose configuration is so drastically changed that return to its original configuration or conversion to standard operational configuration is beyond practicable or economic limits.

The VISTA first flew in 1992 and has been a staple of the TPS curriculum. It has provided their students the ability to experience various flying conditions including simulation of other aircrafts’ characteristics.

The aircraft is currently in the midst of an upgrade program which will fully replace the VISTA Simulation System (VSS). The upgrade program will also add a new system called the System for Autonomous Control of Simulation (SACS) to support autonomy testing for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program, the Air Force said in a recent release.

AFRL’s Skyborg is a suite of hardware and software aimed at developing the Air Force’s use of teaming manned and unmanned aircraft, also known as a “loyal wingman.” It will not replace human pilots. Instead, it will provide them with key data to support rapid, informed decisions. In this manner, Skyborg will provide manned teammates with greater situational awareness and survivability during combat missions.

The system made its first flight on a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako air vehicle in April. In December 2020, the Air Force awarded Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics contracts to continue with the effort.

Skyborg is one of four Air Force “Vanguard” programs—top research projects that USAF believes will be unique and useful. Others include the Golden Horde weapons swarm, Navigation Technology Satellite-3, and the “rocket cargo” space mobility effort.

The famed “X” designation is for aircraft that are designed for “testing configurations of a radical nature. The X-62 is now part of an exclusive club that has helped shape cutting-edge aeronautical research for decades, including the Bell X-1, which was the first airplane to break the sound barrier, and the hypersonic X-15. Other more recent examples include the X-37 space plane, the hypersonic X-51 Waverider, and the second-most-recent X-61 Gremlins.