Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Has The Time Come?
We are in that curious time of year again.
The Army Aviation Assn. of America has gathered to honor its most outstanding members, recount its combat operations over the last year and review the operational and equipment requirements to sustain its ability to wage such efforts in the future.
This serves to remind Americans high and low of the vital role that rotorcraft play in the defense of their nation.
Now members of the American Helicopter Society International from across the United States and around the world are preparing to meet at that group's annual forum and technology display.
That event recalls the vast amount of fundamental aeronautical research performed over decades that has enabled the achievements of rotorcraft, both civil and military, today.
'Our Work Here is Done'
With AHS' Forum 61 concluded, many will soon be packing their bags for the Paris Air Show, that biennial international assembly that has for many, many years been a showcase of U.S. aerospace prowess.
Meanwhile, in Washington, politicians and bureaucrats wrestling over the details of federal budgets for the next few years are weighing how much more to emaciate the heart of the U.S. rotorcraft industry--that is, its research and development capabilities.
On the last point, there may not be much more work left to be done. President Bush's Fiscal 2006 budget proposal, if enacted, eliminates even the relative pittance of $30 million that traditionally had been allocated each year for NASA-backed rotorcraft funding. Support for the efforts of the nation's chosen rotorcraft research centers of excellence--the Georgia Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland--is largely wiped out.
A handful of military-related research initiatives (related to heavy-lift capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles and special-forces applications) continue to benefit from federal largesse. Otherwise, the future of rotorcraft in the United States is left to fend for itself.
Elsewhere, the atmosphere is more hospitable. Bell Helicopter Textron, for instance, has won new support from the national government of Canada and the province of Quebec, to the tune of nearly US$220 million over several years, for development of its Modular Affordable Product Line of civil aircraft.
There is ample evidence that much remains to be done to make rotorcraft safer, more efficient and more compatible to the environments in which they operate. Combat fliers in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to stay safe in brownout conditions considered brutal and unmatched by those who have operated there. Domestically, pilots, crewmembers and passengers continue to die in what should be entirely avoidable accidents involving controlled flight into terrain and inadvertent flight into instrument conditions. Many helicopters remain more inefficient, expensive and noisy than they should.
For evidence that these may be surmountable challenges, Americans have only to look towards Europe. There, for years, governments and industry have pursued fairly coordinated and well-funded research initiatives.
In this time, Eurocopter has achieved a large and growing market position in the United States while AgustaWestland's efforts will allow the U.S. Marine Corps to fly the U.S. president in a helicopter largely designed and built in part by European manufacturers.
But smarter people than I know this. They have presumably considered all those points, or heard arguments on them, and decided that U.S. funds should be taken from rotorcraft research and spent elsewhere. This begs the question of whether they are right, whether the time has come to give up the fight.
There are a couple of reasons why this may be so. The federal budget is not a bottomless pot of cash. Limits must be set on how that money is spent and the rotorcraft industry may have higher priority needs than R&D.
The FAA, for instance, is as starved for funds as is NASA. Now many in industry would say the last thing they want is more money for more FAA inspectors to pay more attention to helicopter activities. The fact that most individuals in the FAA can't spell rotorcraft is widely considered a good thing. But a lack of FAA personnel (and, more to the point, a lack of properly qualified people in FAA jobs) prevents operators from getting signoffs on supplemental type certificates, training programs and other paperwork that they need to do business and make money. So maybe we should be fighting for funds for the FAA, not NASA.
Another reason is that, while those close to the U.S. research world have warned for years of the harm being done by R&D cuts, the industry has yet to march en masse on Washington to demand change.
The major manufacturers get their slices of science and technology funding in military budgets. Those budgets are burgeoning, so perhaps the manufacturers are content to live on that. The money will be spent largely on improvements to existing aircraft designs, with gains coming from the systems placed on the airframes, not the airframes themselves.
If young engineers decide their careers will be more fruitful designing software and systems rather than aircraft, perhaps that's just what the helicopter industry needs for sustenance for the next 20 years. Two decades is plenty of time to figure out how we'll replace our current fleets of helicopters.