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F/A-18A Hornet display at Arnold AFB honors Wittwer

The significance of the static aircraft displayed outside the Main Gate and Gate 2 of Arnold Air Force Base goes beyond decorative purposes.

The displays symbolize the importance of the work performed across Arnold Engineering Development Complex, headquartered at Arnold AFB. Testing conducted within AEDC facilities played a role in either the development or advancement of each type of aircraft exhibited.

But there is an additional meaning behind the displays. Each serves to honor the memory of those who sacrificed. They are dedicated to members of the U.S. military who gave their lives in service to the country.

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The displays are publicly accessible, and it’s not uncommon to see members of the community or other visitors stop for an up-close look at the aircraft. Many have likely taken the time to read the commemorative plaques installed in front of each to learn about those the displays honor.  However, others who catch a glimpse of the planes while passing by Arnold on Wattendorf Memorial Highway may be unaware of what the displays represent.

This is the final in a series of six stories focused on those to whom the displays are dedicated. Information on work performed at Arnold to field the safest and most effective version of each aircraft displayed will also be provided.

This feature focuses on the F/A-18A Hornet displayed at Gate 2, dedicated in memory of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Frank Wittwer during an Oct. 3, 2009, ceremony at Arnold. 

Wittwer died Jan. 18, 2006. At the time, Wittwer was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 97, also referred to as VFA-97, a naval aviation squadron stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. He was killed in a crash caused by aircraft mechanical failure during a nighttime training mission over California. He was preparing for deployment overseas.

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Wittwer, who was born in 1970 and grew up in Louisiana, was a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He earned his undergraduate degree in systems engineering prior to beginning his active-duty career as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard the USS California and the USS McFaul.

Wittwer later transitioned to naval aviation and, after earning his Wings of Gold, was assigned to fly the F/A-18 Hornet with the Strike Fighter Squadron 137 Kestrels in 2001.

During his tour of duty with the Kestrels, Wittwer deployed with the squadron in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2002 to 2003.

He was subsequently assigned to Strike Fighter Wing Pacific Fleet as Safety Officer and a follow-on assignment with the VFA-97 Warhawks.

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Among other accomplishments, Wittwer also completed the Executive Master of Business Administration program at the Craig School of Business at California State University, Fresno.

Navy Cmdr. Todd Wilson, then-commanding officer of VFA-137 at Naval Air Station was the guest speaker for the F/A-18 dedication ceremony at Arnold. He was also one of Wittwer’s best friends.

“Frank was everybody’s friend, and he was always inquisitive about things,” Wilson said. “My dad had a very successful [naval] career, and Frank had a thousand questions for him. Frank shared his surface Navy experience, but less so because he was so excited about flying, and it has become, like for a lot of us, not quite an infatuation but a large piece of our lives.”

Wilson described Wittwer as like a brother to him.

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“I first met Frank on my block. He moved into a house two doors down,” Wilson said. “Wives quickly became best friends, kids were a similar age, and Frank and I were best friends right off the bat.

“When he finished his training, he ended up coming to the same squadron. We ended up almost simultaneously showing up to VFA-137 and, over the next three years, shared if not six, but seven days a week with each other in one capacity or another.”

Wilson and Lt. Cmdr. Matt Culp, then an operation officer with VFA-147 at Lemoore, flew to the dedication ceremony in two F/A-18E aircraft from the installation in California to Arnold AFB as a tribute to Wittwer. AEDC support of the F/A-18 program began before the first flight of the aircraft and continued throughout the following decades.

The F/A-18, which made its first flight November 1978 and was introduced in October 1983, was the nation’s first designated strike-fighter and was designed for traditional strike applications without compromising its fighter capabilities. Prior to the first flight of the F/A-18, propulsion tests were performed at Arnold in the 1970s on the engines of the YF-17, the prototype fighter aircraft that was developed into the F/A-18. Aerodynamic testing was also conducted on scale models of the YF-17.

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In March 1977, the first aerodynamic tests of the F/A-18 at AEDC were conducted. These tests evaluated the effects of minor changes in the airframe and fixed air inlets on the stability and performance of the inlets. Extensive wind tunnel tests to examine the flight characteristics of the F/A-18 were completed.

Over the 30 years that followed that test, AEDC personnel conducted aerodynamic loads and store separation testing on the Hornet, its engine and the aircraft’s associated payloads. In the first phase of the tests, drag effects created by the external carriage of missile and a fuel tank were examined. The remainder of the program was concerned with evaluating aircraft stability.

In November 1977, AEDC personnel completed a study of the stability and performance of the inlets that direct to the engines of the Hornet. A wide range of flight speeds were simulated over a number of angles of attack and sideslip. These studies were a continuation of inlet performance tests conducted in AEDC wind tunnels the previous year.

In the late 1970s, extensive aerodynamic tests examining the compatibility of the Hornet and an air-to-air missile. A model of the missile was separated from the aircraft as aerodynamic forces were recorded on the missile. This helped analysts determine if the separation would be clean in flight.

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In the summer of 1978, a series of tests was conducted to examine the compatibility of the aircraft with various externally carried payloads, including missiles, bombs and fuel tanks.

The Hornet returned to Arnold AFB wind tunnels in 1990 when work was performed to determine whether a missile would safely separate from the aircraft. The engine serving as the F/A-18 power plant was subsequently tested at Arnold. Previously, the engine was tested exclusively at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Trenton, New Jersey. However, as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the Trenton facility was closed and testing was transferred to Arnold.

In the fall of 1995, the F/A-18 also received treatment from the famous “chicken gun” at Arnold AFB as components of the aircraft were put through simulated bird strike testing at the AEDC bird impact range. This facility was dedicated to testing the design and development of lightweight, optically suitable windshields and canopies capable of withstanding high impact forces without breaking, shattering or excessive bending. To conduct such tests, chicken carcasses were fired at aircraft windshields and canopies from an air-powered Navy gun barrel acquired in 1972.

During the F/A-18 tests, 4-pound chicken carcasses were fired at the cockpit windshields while high-speed motion picture photography was used to record the impact and deflection of the windshields. When the film was replayed in slow motion, engineers were able to view the bird strike and make deflection measurements.

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Additional weapons separation testing would follow in the late 1990s. In 2003, additional engine testing was conducted.

That same year, the F/A-18 that would later be dedicated in Wittwer’s honor became a static display at Arnold AFB. Initially, the aircraft was installed at the base Main Gate before its relocation to Gate 2.

During the dedication ceremony, Wilson and other of Wittwer’s fellow aviators in attendance remarked that they are well aware of impact AEDC has on the warfighting effort and how the testing conducted throughout its facilities helps safeguard the men and women who serve.

“I do think that the people who work here do the nation a great service in bettering what is the incredible technology that goes into war and in protecting the nation,” Wilson said. “I think if they’re connecting the human component to the technology that’s going into what is worked on here, it’s going to push somebody that much farther to say, ‘What I do here matters.’”

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The static F/A-18 Hornet on display outside Gate 2 at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., is dedicated to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Frank Wittwer. He died Jan. 18, 2006, in a crash caused by aircraft mechanical failure during a nighttime training mission over California. He was preparing for deployment overseas. Wittwer was a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He earned his undergraduate degree in systems engineering prior to beginning his active-duty career. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Brooke Brumley)

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