Rotocraft facility will boost innovation

 - November 1, 2006, 11:38 AM

Why do we need something like this R&D center?
In recent years, the level of rotorcraft research in the U.S. has diminished because the primary responsibility for it lay with NASA, which wanted to focus its energies on space. As a result, the level of research into cutting-edge technologies for rotorcraft decreased, which is one reason why the U.S. has lost market share in the finished product. There is also a lot of talk about further industry rationalization, which may mean we end up having two domestic manufacturers rather than the three or four we had only a few years ago.

What’s your involvement?
I have a parochial interest because a Boeing facility is in my state and a lot of my constituents work there. Since I’ve been in Congress, many of my committee assignments have involved the armed services and I have become something of a point-person for rotorcraft issues.

It soon became apparent to me that things were not going well. We spent billions of dollars on the Comanche and then canceled the program, which was a stupid waste of money. In addition to chairing the research committee for defense for six years, I now chair the air and land subcommittee that oversees the funding for helicopters, so I’m involved in most aspects of military rotorcraft procurement. I have also just been appointed vice chair of the homeland security committee. Last year, I made a commitment to the AHS that I would make renewing the focus on the rotorcraft industry in America one of my top priorities.

How do you do that?
You have to create a center of excellence and at the time I recalled, a few years earlier, visiting Newport News, Va. They had recently opened the Virginia advanced shipbuilding and carrier integration center–an enormous engineering and technology complex next door to the shipyard. It is a consortium of the high-tech universities in Virginia that have the in-house technological capabilities to assist Newport News in the design of our aircraft carriers and submarines. It’s a public-private partnership, and I thought we needed something like that for rotorcraft.

Who do you need with you on such a project?
Who should the players be? Obviously NASA, for one, because although it hasn’t been doing much lately, it still has that mandate. The major manufacturers and the first tier of suppliers to them [such as Pratt & Whitney and Smiths Aerospace–Ed.], plus the major research institutions and three of the best research and educational institutions–at Georgia Tech, University of Maryland and Penn State. The AHS would be the industry group bringing them all together.

The idea was that the results of the center’s efforts should not benefit any one company but should instead be available to them all, helping them to develop new rotorcraft technologies across the board. If I got their support for that concept, then I would secure initial funding. At the same time I started talking to Boeing, which had one of the largest rotorcraft blade test stands and wind tunnels in the country, and it agreed to make its facilities available.

Apart from being my own back yard, the area around Philadelphia is a good place to start: it has a lot of rotorcraft history. The Boeing facility in Delaware county was originally set up by helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki–he’s still working on cutting-edge technology near the airport. Igor Sikorsky did some early work here, and even Bell can trace its history back to the area. Philadelphia is also a natural hub.

In early discussions with Boeing, we talked about its maybe freeing up some space on the understanding that it would be fenced off and run entirely separately from Boeing. In the early days it will be set up at Penn State Delaware County. In the longer term, if I have my way, it will be built next to Boeing, on I-95 and alongside Philadelphia International Airport.

I have connections with many of the international manufacturers and I want to see an international focus on creating rotorcraft for the 21st century. The airports are congested, yet we can’t get the extra runways they need.

We need to be looking at the next generation of commuter transportation and, to my mind, that means rotorcraft. When we first launched the V-22, we could see the potential for maybe even larger civil variants that could carry maybe 90 people–that’s the ultimate solution. I’d also like it to look at unmanned rotorcraft. Such UAVs could take on a ton of missions under the homeland security banner.

Although the center should be a focal point for rotorcraft R&D, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be carried out elsewhere as well. It needs to be a collaborative effort. There would be proprietary sensitivities and we would need to build firewalls into the system. Such sensitivities are not confined to overseas corporations, of course, but are an issue for U.S. companies as well, and the center will address those issues. I believe these will evolve over time, however, and we don’t need to force them at this stage.

What’s the first step?
The announcement also initiates a teaming of 150 top scientists from around the world, who will come together to discuss the rotorcraft’s future. We have been given $2.5 million dollars, which will be enough to get things started. We will be appointing a highly qualified individual with impeccable credentials in the rotorcraft industry to serve as executive director.

Once the center gets organized it will need more funding. The manufacturers may be asked to contribute at some stage but my goal is an annual rotorcraft R&D budget of between $30 million and $50 million of public money. We may not get that right away, but that’s where it should be, in my view.

The industry needs some kind of champion to push for it and they will all benefit if there’s a bigger pot of money for their use, rather than fighting among themselves for a dwindling pot each year. Let’s have an international plan and program of action, bring all the key stakeholders together and implement it.

I hope that will happen this year.

It’s the infrastructure as well though, isn’t it?
We certainly have to update the infrastructure, and that’s not going to happen until the aviation people in this country see that we’re serious about playing a major role. I should have said that the FAA flight and engineering test center, based in Atlantic City, N.J., is also a stakeholder in the CRI project. The NTSB is also involved. I think we’ve covered all the bases as far as stakeholders and we’ve researched all the revenue streams that we can tap into.