Goodbye Grey Wolf

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - The MH-139A Grey Wolf’s back left tire was the last to leave the ground as Maj. Jonathan Palka’s synchronized stick and pedal movements propelled the aircraft up, forward and away from Duke Field’s runway. 

The lift-off June 27 marked the last aircraft out and official end of the new helicopter’s time at Eglin and its flight forward to a future as an Air Force Global Strike Command combat capable asset.

The MH-139 arrived at Eglin in December 2019 and was officially named Grey Wolf shortly after.  For its first two years, testing was limited for the then Boeing-owned aircraft.  The 413th Flight Test Squadron teamed up with AFGSC’s Detachment 7 to manage, fly and crew the test missions with Boeing flight crew during the aircraft’s time at Eglin.

In August 2022, the Air Force took ownership and testing began quickly with as many as six aircraft located at Duke Field, one of Eglin’s many auxiliary fields.

The Air Force ownership coincided with the arrival of Palka, a helicopter flyer or Rotorhead as they are known, just out of test pilot training at the Naval Test Pilot School, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, who joined the 413th FLTS MH-139 test team.

Although new to Air Force developmental test, Palka wasn’t completely new to the aircraft.  He piloted the Grey Wolf’s civilian counterpart, AW-139, in simulator training and then delivered one of the test aircraft to Duke Field.

“(At USNTPS) you are always short on time and frequently fly aircraft you don’t know a lot about, so it was nice have the time to deep dive and get a comprehensive understanding of the aircraft and its systems,” said Palka, who flew the UH-1N Huey at Yokota AB, Japan, and FE Warren AFB, Wyoming before becoming a test pilot. “I got to use a lot of what I learned at TPS here at Eglin. My timing was lucky, and I am grateful for it.”

When flying a brand-new aircraft like the MH-139, the test pilots and special mission aviators didn’t have the military safety procedures, manuals and operating instructions honed from years of flights.  They were the Airmen creating those critical documents that the Grey Wolf’s aircrews use going forward.

The role of the test pilot is critical in the early life cycle of these new aircraft, according to Palka.  They act as liaisons, translating engineer lingo to pilot-speak. They plan and execute tests, potentially on unfamiliar aircraft, which are sometimes challenging, sometimes benign, and provide useful data and recommendations to the user.

“Data is really only useful if you can relay how your findings are going to affect the end user and make recommendations accordingly,” said Palka.

A 413th FLTS mission statement is “to safely deliver independent, decision-quality information on time.” Palka said the word independent is so important in that statement.

“Test is specifically separated from the program office’s chain of command to avoid biases or influence that could result in inaccurate data, driven by things like cost or schedule pressure,” said Palka, who’s served as the leader of the MH-139 operations team.

Being new to the 413th FLTS and its testing procedures, Palka teamed up with someone very familiar with the rotary-wing developmental test process, the squadron’s resident test pilot, Tony Arrington.

Arrington has been a 413th FLTS employee for 20 years through its various iterations and a rotary-wing pilot for approximately 38 years as both active duty and in Air Force civilian service.  The two pilots sat across from each other both in the office and often in the cockpit for the duration of the MH-139 testing at Eglin.

Arrington mentored Palka through various test process difficulties and complexities regarding acquisitions, ownership, responsibilities, etc.

“When you’re dealing with something new, you fall back on your prior experience. I don’t have any prior test experience outside of school, so I borrow Tony’s,” said the 34-year-old major.  “Leaning heavily on his experience has been invaluable to me during this program. There’s no way I could have jumped into my role here and been successful without Tony’s guidance.”

For Arrington’s part, because of his experience level, he provided a sense of continuity for testing, but also flight and aircraft machinations.  Whenever questions came up, Arrington could provide an answer or some insight.  Most significantly, Arrington’s experience allowed him to explain the ‘why’ regarding the way things are done, which Palka said is simultaneously the hardest, but most important piece to understand regarding test.  

“He (Palka) asked a ton of questions spanning acquisition issues to aircraft systems knowledge and has really been receptive to the things I’ve learned and experienced,” said Arrington, who was one of the first Air Force pilots qualified on the MH-139 in 2019.  “I hope I’ve passed on a few things that’ll serve him well as a test pilot.”

The two put in countless desk hours during the MH-139’s development, but also more than 600 hours in the pilot seats of the aircraft sometimes together, sometimes separately.  The test pilots, along with SMAs and test engineers were part of every major MH-139 test objective and milestone from first flights, weapons, rappel, hoist and defensive systems, unconventional landings and more.

Those aircrews encountered questions and conditions such as what happens to expended bullet shells when they hit the airstream during flight and how will the aircraft’s engines react to a large ingestion of dirt, sand or snow. These situations operational teams will encounter were brought to light early by 413th FLTS and Det. 7 aircrews - a major goal of Air Force developmental testing.

The DT phase began August 2022 and ended in February, with follow-on tests occurring throughout 2024.  Even though the Grey Wolf departed Eglin, Arrington, Palka and other aircrew continue working the program through those follow-on tests on a helicopter that the USAF procured with no reliance on a sister service’s previous acquisition.