When a product is designed it is tested before it's sold to make sure it is working properly.

This couldn't be more applicable to the equipment fielded out to Soldiers for use in combat. To ensure reliability, normally equipment is put through a trial run.

A mixed group of Soldiers, airmen and civilians took that one step further and put their equipment through a test flight.

The group from Product Manager Field Artillery Launchers, Precision Fires Rocket and Missile Systems, Fort Sill Master Gunners Division, Lockheed Martin, and L-3 Communications tested an upgrade to the Universal Fire Control System on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems Sept. 16.

This upgrade, called "Hot Panel" is meant to allow the fire control system to track the HIMARS' global position while it's transported in flight. That way, the fire control system will know where it is and, more importantly, when the Soldiers roll the HIMARS off the aircraft-they can deliver precision guided rockets or Army Tactical Missile System missiles to hit targets and be able to make a hasty exit.

"If we want to get in somewhere that's hot, we want to do some damage before they know what hit them," said Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Proudfoot, 1st Battalion, 30th Field Artillery.

The exercise was an excellent opportunity for joint training according to Maj. Michael Fitzgerald, assistant product manager for HIMARS. He said it also brought the user community together, like Proudfoot who gets a sneak peek at where the force is going and is able to communicate the Soldiers' needs to those making the product.

James Cyr, PFRMS, explained how the current navigation system used in HIMARS tracks its location: through global positioning system (GPS and through an inertial navigation system. The inertial navigation system tells the machine where it is by the movement of the wheels on the launcher.

"Normally if you were in the air and you're flying, the GPS would say you're moving and the wheels would say no you're staying still. It sends both those signals to the computer so the computer would get confused. What we do now is turn off the inertial navigation system and then it relies strictly on the GPS on the aircraft."

Soldiers have to initialize the system and wait for it to pinpoint its location after landing, which costs them up to 20 crucial minutes.

"It's life and death. It's very important for us to be able to insert ourselves onto the battlefield and be able to shoot instantaneously," said Jim Elliott, PM Field Artillery Launchers product integrator.

The data collection flights were flown from the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport where Airmen from the 58th Airlift Squadron arrived on a C-17 from Altus Air Force Base for the mission. The other personnel came from Fort Sill, Texas, Alabama and New Jersey.

Once the C-17 landed and taxied from the runway, the HIMARS were driven into the tail of the aircraft and swallowed hole.

Fitting comfortably inside, the two 35,000-pound HIMARS looked as though they were bopping along with a beat during the flight. Chained down, they were checked, double checked and triple checked to make sure they didn't go anywhere.

Another upgrade to the roll on, roll off firing mission was the GPS re-transmitters inside the aircraft. For the first time they were used to send signals wirelessly to the receiver on the HIMARS. Steve Gentry, Lockheed Martin Hot Panel program manager, said this reduced the time for troops to roll out without having to first detach cords connecting the two.

A civilian commented the C-17 was like the Cadillac of cargo planes and the passengers looked comfortable inside as some chatted or read. Proudfoot said he noticed the same range on Fort Sill coming in and out of

his view through a window as the pilots were practicing a spiral ascent, a combat maneuver in which Capt. Reese Swanson, 58th Airlift Squadron, said they get the aircraft up and out of the range of small arms fire quickly.

After take-off Robert Miller, Techmasters navigation engineer, initialized the fire control system and Robert Kilpatrick, Lockheed Martin Hot Panel software lead, sat behind the gunner's display.

There was no in-flight movie, no meals, just good ol' fashioned data collection.

Kilpatrick said he never imagined designing software for Lockheed Martin would land him a seat in the skies aboard a military aircraft, but he thoroughly enjoys it. Particularly the part about being able to talk to Soldiers to find out what they like and don't like about a system.

Meanwhile, Ed Lizzul, L-3 Communications software engineer, was behind the HIMARS checking a laptop that was strapped securely onto the back. The laptop was recording information from the fire control system to be analyzed later.

"Basically what we've been doing over the past six months or so is collecting a lot of data and we've built a simulation or a model. What we want to do now is just one more data flight, get the data and check it against our simulation to make sure our simulation is correct. If it is, then we'll basically declare success, and we'll be ready to field this capability," said Cyr.

After 50 minutes in the skies overlooking Elgin, Oklahoma City, Fort Sill and Lawton, the pilots landed the aircraft and the HIMARS were rolled off.

Kilpatrick checked the navigation system and said initially the software upgrade looks like it was a success. He said the system was able to track its position during the entire flight, but they will still check the data to make sure before fielding it out to Soldiers in combat.

Of course, the Soldiers and everyone who has stake in their lives and the United States, will give their own stamp of approval after seeing what matters most to them: its success in bring Soldiers home safely and in defeating the enemy.