Center promises to be catalyst for U.S. rotorcraft R&D efforts

 - October 4, 2007, 5:33 AM

“The U.S. rotorcraft industry has fallen behind because of lack of funding and interest,” William Retz, rear admiral USN (ret.), told AIN. “We need to get behind the industry and move it forward again.” Retz is the executive director of operations for the proposed Center for Rotorcraft Innovation (CRI).

“Rotorcraft have a unique, indispensable capability in support of America’s national defense and homeland security. As a country we’ve let ourselves fall so far behind that the industry now requires significant investment in research and development to maximize its potential,” Retz said. “The CRI will reinforce and coordinate several existing efforts while providing a centralized location for additional research, education and development.”

The original idea for the center came from a white paper titled “Why create the Center for Rotorcraft Innovation? A white paper on the need for a rotorcraft resurgence in America,” written by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. In the paper Weldon wrote, “From 2001 to 2003, rotorcraft research performed by DOD and NASA declined from $113.6 million to $56.3 million. Long-term cooperative efforts between NASA and the DOD are cause for serious concern…Facing internal budget pressures, NASA eliminated all of its rotorcraft R&D activity in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, and restored only a fraction of this work in 2004. The DOD also reduced its overall investment in research and development, testing and evaluation by 20 percent from 1987 to 1999. Meanwhile, industry-funded aerospace research and development fell by 37 percent from $8.1 billion in 1986 to $5.1 billion in 1999 in inflation-adjusted dollars.”

Weldon believes the war in Iraq clearly demonstrates how precious helicopters are to American men and women for emergency evacuation, combat and logistical support, as well as justifying the creation of the center.

The center’s mission will be to administer and conduct rotorcraft pre-competitive research and development with the participation of major rotorcraft manufacturers, their suppliers, operators, support providers, academic researchers, government laboratories, industry associates and other nonprofit organizations. “As the center grows through phased transitions, many of these entities will co-locate at the center to take advantage of the economy of resources as well as the synergy of related research efforts under one roof,” Retz said.

According to Mike Barbera, a public-relations consultant at MGB Ltd. who worked with Weldon for more than eight years, the Congressman has long ties to the industry. “There is a Boeing helicopter facility in his district, he’s been close to the helicopter museum and is a good friend of Steve Townes, who is the president and CEO of Keystone Helicopters.” Weldon is also vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees all Army rotorcraft research, and he sits on the House Finance Committee that oversees NASA’s budget.

NASA has historically had a significant role in the funding of helicopter research, and the Congressman has been vocal about NASA’s abandoning that area. One of the precipitating problems of the lack of R&D funds was NASA’s drastic reduction in rotorcraft research. Currently, the U.S. Army is the major government funding source for helicopter R&D.

Twelve major companies have come together to make the CRI happen. “While it’s true that many of the companies compete with one another, they were all very supportive of the idea of pooling resources in a pre-competitive nature where we can bring together the talent of academia and industry to work together,” Retz said.  
In early March a memorandum of understanding (MOU) organizing the center was signed by Boeing, Sikorsky, Bell, Kaman, the Rotorcraft Industry Technology Association (RITA), Keystone Helicopter, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maryland, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Piasecki, AgustaWestland and the American Competitiveness Institute.

The center is being administered by the American Competitiveness Institute during its formative stages and will transition into its own independent, nonprofit corporation in the future. Currently, the signatories provide technical oversight. Their future role has yet to be determined and, according to Retz, could be anything from advisory to members of the board.

Philadelphia-based American Competitiveness Institute is an independent nonprofit corporation whose primary business is with the government. It functions under contracts with the Navy (National Center for Electronics Manufacturing) and the Army’s Sustainment Center. The institute identifies pieces of electronic equipment being used that have become difficult to maintain because of a lack of spare parts. It reengineers the part and then turns the plans over to industry to manufacture and supply.

Retz said it was the institute’s business model of developing commercially viable products in cooperation with industry that makes it fertile ground for the new CRI. The congressman is also an executive with the American Competitiveness Institute and one of the key architects of the MOU.

Picking a location is a significant issue. “We want to keep it in southeastern Pennsylvania,” Retz said. “Accessibility will be very important because it will house extensive testing, training, simulation and R&D laboratories. Hopefully the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center will also relocate to the center, so as to make it readily accessible to tourists. We’re focusing our search effort along the I-95 corridor.”

 “We are excited and ready to go,” Retz said. “With the cooperation of industry, as well as our academic and government partners, the center will be the catalyst for a rebirth of the rotorcraft industry in America.”