United States Army and NATO researchers are reviewing the result of recent tests in Germany and Switzerland on advanced sensor and flight control packages designed to help pilots not only survive in degraded visual environments (DVE), but also fight and prevail in them.
The latest initiative frustrates some former aviators who recall investigating DVE threats in Army assignments decades ago and identifying promising countermeasures. “We know the threats and the fixes,” said one aviator. “We’ve lacked the commitment.”
Counter-DVE efforts have suffered since the turn of the century as a result of the U.S. Army’s spending priorities on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combatting terrorism worldwide and ensuring the survivability of troops engaged in those operations. The service has reinvigorated its efforts by expanding its goals from improving the safety of air crews — DVE is a primary contributing factor in a vast majority of Army aviation mishaps — to giving warriors an edge over foes by enabling them to fight in DVE conditions.
“Dark night went from being a hazard to our greatest tactical advantage,” said Col. Steven Braddom, who as director of the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate in the Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), oversaw key research. “Now we prefer to operate in the darkest night we can find. We’d like to transform operating in other weather environmental conditions to our advantage, just like this.”
The Aviation Development Directorate is the lead agency in the Army effort, which includes the Aeroflightdynamics Directorate, the Army Research Lab, the Army Aeromedical Research Lab, and the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center.
As the Army has struggled to combat the DVE threat and harness potential advantages, manufacturers have made progress in adapting countermeasures to the civil helicopter market.
Last month, Israeli avionics maker Elbit Systems said it had signed a long-term agreement with Leonardo to jointly market and equip that OEM’s commercial helicopters with Elbit’s Heli-ClearVision enhanced flight vision systems.
Heli-ClearVision comprises a set of wearable head-up displays and enhanced vision systems with synthetic vision applications specifically designed for helicopters requirements, the company said. At its core, the system uses an enhanced vision camera to support operations in extreme weather conditions and low visibility situations, both day and night.
The NATO DVE Flight Trials, conducted in February, provided the opportunity for U.S. test pilots and engineers to collaborate with German and Swiss counterparts while piloting German, Swiss and U.S. DVE mitigation systems.
The aircraft included a Sikorsky EH-60L from the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, a Swiss Air Force Airbus Helicopters EC635 and an Airbus EC135 from the German Aerospace Center.
Flight testing in Germany focused on flying under very special visual flight rules in instrument meteorological conditions in rain and fog. The tests in Switzerland involved conducting approaches to landing and hover at a landing site in the Alps to experience heavy snow and helicopter-induced whiteout conditions.
The European tests followed ones late last year at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The 2016 testing was focused on brownout conditions, using approaches and touchdowns on a landing zone obscured by standing dust. The Yuma Proving Ground’s DVE landing zone has multiple tilled lanes meant to maximize the grit and dirt kicked up by rotor wash. It also includes obstacles.
Test pilots from all participating nations conducted quality evaluations in each other’s aircraft to compare the systems. “These very experienced, non-U.S. pilots averaged 22 years of military service and had accumulated flight hours ranging from 2,000 to 7,800 with 1,500 hours of glass cockpit experience,” said Maj. Paul Flanigen, assistant program manager of Research, Development and Engineering Command Rotorcraft DVE-Mitigation for the Aviation Development Directorate. R&WI