Academy cadets work to improve airdrop accuracy, aircrew communication

  • Published
  • By Amy Gillentine
  • Office of Research
When Academy cadets become pilots, engineers or logisticians, they will know their research here helped make several positive changes for aircrews, their planes and ground troops.

Cadets and faculty in the Behavioral Sciences and Management Departments are working to improve air support crew communication and the accuracy of airdrops through capstone projects.

It's an opportunity to potentially change the entire Air Force.

"This project is an example of being a part of an organization bigger than I am," said Cadet 1st Class James Shults, scheduled to attend pilot training next year. "Knowing something I'm doing will affect more than just a few people is pretty humbling."

Shults and Cadet 1st Class Blaise McNeese are working on a common aircraft problem: noise. Their senior capstone project focused on improving flight crew communication in noisy aircraft, including C-130 Hercules, UH-60 Black Hawks and the Bell UH-1 or Huey helicopters.

"I rode in a Huey this summer," McNeese said. "Even while hooked into the communications system, it was loud. For people not hooked in, it's impossible to communicate."

The helicopter crew often includes a variety of mission support personnel, including medics and pararescuemen who treat patients.

"You don't think of it, how hard it is to take care of a patient when you can't talk to them due to the aircraft noise," said Dr. Vic Finomore, a visiting researcher with the department's Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center.

Finomore is overseeing the capstone project. He said the Defense Department's Hearing Center of Excellence and Air Force Research Laboratory's Battlespace Acoustics Branch are also involved in the research.

"They are topics affecting the operational Air Force, and there's very little work out there on it," he said.

There didn't appear to be any previous research about communication intelligibility inside a C-130. The AFRL has simulators, but the research is limited, so cadets are spending the semester gathering data. Early this week, they spent time on a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base and are working with researchers at Fort Carson, Colorado, to conduct tests on Black Hawk and Huey helicopters.

"Next semester we'll come up with solutions and ideas to make things better," McNeese said. "We already know there's more than one idea out there, so we'll see which ones are best."

Airdrop accuracy

While cadets find solutions for the noise problem, another senior capstone project is in its second year of research on another air operations problem.

The capstone cadets, led by Lt. Col. Tim Pettit, a management department assistant professor, are working on precision airdrop research. The problem is that GPS-guided parachutes carrying equipment loads are expensive and sometimes land far from their targets.

"We think it's the mid-level winds," Pettit said. "They check the winds at the drop site, and the winds at the flight level, but those winds in the middle are only averaged in. We think those winds are why non-guided parachutes don't work well at higher altitudes. If facing small arms fire from the ground, it's definitely safer to drop from above the danger zone."

It's a military problem, cadets said, because parachutes are expensive and a solution could save money on the airdrops.

Last year, Class of 2014 cadets worked on a multidisciplinary capstone project involving mathematical models necessary for this year's experiments. The AFRL staff assisted from their precision airdrop office and their Control Science Center of Excellence, but the parachutes themselves are the provenance of the Army.

"Once we talked to pilots and systems managers and found there's very little wind information included in airdrop calculations, AFRL and U.S. Army Natick asked us to examine wind speed and wind-shear effects on the parachute shape and performance," Pettit said.

Air Force drops can be very heavy and in hostile environments, dropping equipment even a short distance from the target can create problems and risk lives.

"What if you're in a valley, but the winds blow (the parachute) off target?" Pettit asked. "That's the issue — they are literally guessing those midlevel winds."

Academy meteorology majors assist with detailed wind forecasts and on-site launches of weather balloons to gather actual winds at altitude just before the C-130s drop the instrumented cargo bundles.

Cadet 1st Class Trent Vonich and his team are critical to gathering data on the winds, Pettit said. Last year they practiced with a smaller model built by Academy Training Devices. The cadets designed a scale model cargo bundle with test equipment and dropped it from contractor Skyvan aircraft, using a GoPro camera to take pictures below the parachute.

This year, they're going full-size, from a 12-pound test model to an 800-pound full-scale model. They're going to Peterson AFB to drop it with the 302nd Airlift Wing, a reserve unit.

Cadets might even have the chance to be inside the C-130 during the four test runs.

The end goal is to find if mid-level winds change how the parachute drops and if there are ways to mathematically model the parachutes more accurately and cheaply than GPS-guided chutes.

"The Army says the current system is recoverable," Pettit said. "But troops on the ground aren't going to take these heavy boxes out on their bases. If we can find a more accurate and cheaper system, they can complete the mission without the costs or the additional weight."

Both cadets involved in the project are systems engineers. Cadets 1st Class Kyle Morse and Max Johnson said it's challenging to develop someone else's work into a product.

"Last year's teams started this project," Morse said. "And now our job is to make it better. We had a limited knowledge of any of this, but that's what we'll be doing in the operational Air Force, taking other people's work and developing it. As a systems engineer, you have to become a jack of all trades and integrate inputs from your functional experts."

For Johnson, it's paramount their project solves real issues.

"This isn't a textbook problem," he said. "What we're doing actually matters. There are no rules up front, so you have to define the problem and the solution as you go."

Morse said nothing like this has been done here before.

"This is real life, tangible," he said. "It's very satisfying to realize you are making a difference."