NASA Dryden Flight Research Center's new Propulsion Flight Test Fixture (PFTF), designed in house, is an airborne engine-testing facility that enables engineers to gather flight data on small experimental engines. Without the PFTF, it would be necessary to obtain such data from traditional wind tunnels, ground test stands, or laboratory test rigs.

Traditionally, flight testing is reserved for the last phase of engine development. Generally, engines that embody new propulsion concepts are not put into flight environments until their designs are mature: in such cases, either vehicles are designed around the engines or else the engines are mounted in or on missiles. However, a "captive carry" capability of the PFTF makes it possible to test engines that feature air-breathing designs (for example, designs based on the rocket-based combined cycle) economically in subscale experiments.

Figure 1. The PFTF Holds the Test Article underneath the F-15B airplane during flight.
The discovery of unknowns made evident through flight tests provides valuable information to engine designers early in development, before key design decisions are made, thereby potentially affording large benefits in the long term. This is especially true in the transonic region of flight (from mach 0.9 to around 1.2), where it can be difficult to obtain data from wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics.

In January 2002, flight-envelope expansion to verify the design and capabilities of the PFTF was completed. The PFTF was flown on a specially equipped supersonic F-15B research testbed airplane, mounted on the airplane at a center-line attachment fixture, as shown in Figure 1.

NASA's F-15B testbed has been used for several years as a flight-research platform. Equipped with extensive research air-data, video, and other instrumentation systems, the airplane carries externally mounted test articles. Traditionally, the majority of test articles flown have been mounted at the center-line tank-attachment fixture, which is a hardpoint (essentially, a standardized weapon-mounting fixture). This hardpoint has large weight margins, and, because it is located near the center of gravity of the airplane, the weight of equipment mounted there exerts a minimal effect on the stability and controllability of the airplane.

Figure 2. The Interior of the PFTF accommodates instrumentation and fuel-system hardware needed for an experiment.
The PFTF (see Figure 2) includes a one-piece aluminum structure that contains space for instrumentation, propellant tanks, and feed-system components. The PFTF also houses a force balance, on which is mounted the subscale engine or other experimental apparatus that is to be the subject of a flight test. The force balance measures a combination of inertial and aerodynamic forces and moments acting on the experimental apparatus.