Flight recorder

As an ex-RAF pilot and Red Arrows team leader, and with 6,600 flying hours on his clock, Peter Collins is ideally placed to trial the MoD’s state-of-the-art ASTOR radar system.

Military procurement has endured more than its fair share of bad press over the past year. From the ongoing problems with the SA80 rifle to the scaling-down of the Royal navy’s next-generation supercarrier, the news has by and large remained gloomy.

But if current projections are correct, the UK may soon be benefiting from a state-of-the-art air-to-ground surveillance radar system from Raytheon that will not only be delivered on time, but will also be the envy of our allies.

In August ex-Royal Air Force test pilot and former Red Arrows team leader Peter Collins was appointed UK test/project pilot for the ASTOR Sentinel R Mk 1 aircraft made by Raytheon Systems (RSL), the Raytheon subsidiary in Broughton, north Wales.

In 1999 Raytheon was awarded the position of prime contractor for the development of the UK Ministry of Defence Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR). The system, which is on schedule to enter service in 2005, includes five Bombardier Global Express ultra-long-range business jet aircraft fitted with an upgraded version of the Raytheon ASARS-2 side-looking airborne radar, as used on the U-2 spyplane.

The system is designed to provide high-resolution images at high altitude and in all weathers, creating an airborne battlefield or ground surveillance radar system that can transmit data to six tactical and two operational-level ground stations in near real time. It can identify the location, quantity, direction and speed of hostile forces, and can track moving vehicles over wide ranges.

If all goes to plan, ASTOR will be operational with the RAF and Army next year, taking the name Sentinel R1 in the RAF. The plane will be able to ‘talk’ to current US systems such as JSTARS, as well as future projects like NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, avoiding previous battlefield communication problems.

The first ASTOR Sentinel made its maiden flight in Greenville, Texas, in May this year. The remaining four aircraft in the £800m project are being modified at Broughton.

Collins’ principal goal is to head the ASTOR flight test and mission evaluation programme in the UK. Given his extensive experience of both military and civil aerospace operations, during which he has accumulated over 6,600 flying hours in some 68 types of aircraft, this should not prove problematic.

During his RAF career Collins rose to the rank of squadron leader, completing two frontline tours of duty flying Harriers in Germany and serving in the Falklands in 1982, flying Sea Harriers while on detachment with the navy on Illustrious. Following two years as a pilot and later team leader with the Red Arrows, in 1989 he qualified as an experimental military test pilot and was appointed Officer Commanding of the Aerospace Research Test Squadron at DRA Bedford where he worked on the Joint Strike Fighter.

In 1993 Collins opted out of the military, moving to Fokker where he worked on the F60 and F70. After the company went bankrupt in 1996 he spent two years in Germany with Dornier before returning to the UK, joining KLM as a test pilot in 1998.

There he was promoted to head the introduction of the company’s Flight Operations Data Monitoring system that records the events and exceedences of each flight, allowing operators to map trends and create a valuable safety tool.

After three years Collins left to set up his own independent flight testing company. But this fell foul of the global downturn in aviation following September 11.

His new role, he said, is to form the focus for the development team rather than becoming some sort of risk-taking maverick. ‘Nowadays being a test pilot isn’t like the Chuck Yeager “pass me a gun, I’m off in my X-1 now” image. The amount and cost of the technology involved means that gone are the days when we could just build another prototype if the first got damaged. We are more like Formula 1 drivers. Schumacher isn’t just a good driver; he doesn’t change the wheels of the cars but he is a focus for the team. I couldn’t get airborne without my team.’

His role will be to fine-tune the modified aircraft’s performance, acting as a go-between for the various engineering experts involved.

‘Test pilots are not experts in all fields, but they do have a good working knowledge of various areas – for instance, aerodynamics. If they make a suggestion it is important that this is listened to as they are able to be an honest broker if there is any type of conflict.

‘The various groups working on the project can redesign something within their own speciality, but I can look at the overall package and make suggestions by viewing systems from the end user’s perspective.’

Some degree of compromise will be required. ‘No system is perfect,’ he said. ‘I have to look at how critical each piece of equipment is and see whether we can live with it or work around what we have, telling the company the bad news before the customer does.

‘If, for instance, there is a problem with the radio I have to come back with a solution. I have to provide good information about why things don’t work, as well as making suggestions. As the saying goes, “Don’t bring me facts, bring me answers”.’

However, he does not anticipate any major flaws or performance anomalies.

‘The flight test reports for the ASTOR aircraft are almost the same as the standard Global Express. Dorsal fins have been added to the rudder for extra stability owing to the positioning of the radar antenna radome canoe at the base, but as long as you don’t tamper with the wings most jets tend to handle in the same way now. It may use a little extra fuel in the climb and cruise, but the airframe can stay up for 14 hours, so it is at the stage where the man will force the limit to flight times, not the aircraft.’

Collins will initially fly with an RAF test pilot as his co-pilot. Before delivery regular RAF pilots will be allowed to fly the aircraft and provide feedback. This openness should ensure that operability problems are avoided.

‘Including the end-user from the start means that when deliveryis made, there shouldn’t be any surprises. There isn’t as muchcompetition between contractors after the bidding stage so there isn’t so much secrecy as there was 20 years ago,’ said Collins.

The MoD’s order is scheduled for completion in 2007, but Collins believes that ASTOR’s technical superiority will generate further orders. ‘It may well be sold to other allied nations. It has a capability that even the US military may not yet have. ASTOR is highly capable for use in fighting terrorism as well as civil defence.

‘It also has fantastic potential as it is first to market. The systems have been integrated within the aircraft in a way that no one else has been able to.’

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