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US Secretary of Air Force evaluates X-62 VISTA aircraft development

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall flies in the X-62 VISTA in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, California, 2 May 2024. Photo: US Air Force/Richard Gonzales

The US Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, has taken to the front seat of the X-62A VISTA at Edwards Air Force Base in California this month.

The US Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, has taken to the front seat of the X-62A VISTA at Edwards Air Force Base in California this month.

The X-62A, also known as Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft (VISTA), incorporates machine learning and highly specialised software to test autonomous flying.

The aircraft was successfully tested through a collaboration with Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Air Combat Evolution program.


“The potential for autonomous air-to-air combat has been imaginable for decades, but the reality has remained a distant dream up until now,” Kendall said.

“In 2023, the X-62A broke one of the most significant barriers in combat aviation. This is a transformational moment, all made possible by breakthrough accomplishments of the ACE team.”

The research division of the US Air Force Test Pilot School leads overall program management responsibilities for the X-62A. The division’s primary focus is to lead research that accelerates multidomain capabilities for the warfighter while embracing challenges to rapidly test novel technologies.

VISTA’s initial capabilities were reimagined, reworked and fundamentally expanded, culminating in an upgrade that was completed in 2022 and featured three new highly specialised software suites with significantly more computing power to make it all work.

“AI is really taking the most capable technology you have, putting it together, and using it on problems that previously had to be solved through human decision making. It’s automation of those decisions and it’s very specific,” Kendall said.

During Kendall’s flight, the X-62A conducted a variety of tactical manoeuvres utilising live agents that responded in real time to a simulated threat. He completed a series of test points, which were parts of an aerial dogfight within an operation that validated the models and tested its performance. Sitting in the front seat, the controls of the X-62A remained untouched by both Kendall and the safety pilot in the backseat throughout the entire test flight.

Earlier this year in April, the US military announced it will begin integrating autonomous test systems into three F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter jets to expand future autonomy and payload solutions.

The first trio of F-16 Fighting Falcons arrived at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to take part in the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model (VENOM) – Autonomy Flying Testbed program on 3 April.

Under the next stage of the VENOM program, the aircraft will be modified into test platforms to rapidly evaluate autonomous capabilities.

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