In 2014, after nearly 40 years since it had entered service, the Black Hawk was released for sale to the civilian market. With its 8,000-lb external load capacity, it has quickly become a customer favorite in the medium- to heavy-lift sector of flight operations. Having had a purchase price of around $5 million new, most of these surplus UH-60s can now be bought for between $400,000 to $800,000, depending on their condition.
As these surplus Black Hawks have continued to enter the market, Rodney Allison, president of XP Services, saw an opportunity to make a good thing even better. Allison, a retired U.S. Army master aviator and experimental test pilot, felt that the popularity and capability of the older surplus Black Hawks with analog cockpits could be improved if they could be offered with a modern digital alternative. XP then invested in the IDU-680 display offered by Genesys Aerosystems.
I was given the opportunity to qualitatively evaluate the Genesys cockpit upgrade to the UH-60 as Allison ferried the technology demonstrator from Heli-Expo in Las Vegas early March back to XP’s headquarters at Tullahoma Regional Airport in Tennessee. Chad Howard, field engineer and pilot for Genesys, was present for a few legs of the trip to give an in-flight demo and quick lesson on the system’s operation.
The IDU-680 electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) incorporates 3-D synthetic vision, helicopter terrain awareness (HTAWS), engine indication and crew alerting system (EICAS), traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), geo-referenced hover vector, datalink weather display, WAAS/GPS/LPV and integrated NAV/COM radios and transponder, just to name some of its primary functions. All this and more is contained in a 6-inch-by-8-inch portrait display weighing only 9.5 lb. Two of these units live side by side on both the pilot and co-pilot sides of the aircraft. As each unit is self-contained and reconfigurable, many system functions are quadruple-redundant.
Once underway, Howard described the basic operation of the two half-screen “function areas.” When taught the logic, the menu system was easy to navigate, no primary function being more than two menus deep.
As part of the analog to digital conversion, the Genesys air data/attitude and heading reference system (ADAHRS) interfaces with the aircraft’s existing automatic flight control system (AFACS) and other attitude instruments by generating signals that mimic those of the more failure-prone, expensive-to-replace legacy fiber optic gyros and spinning mass gyros.
Besides the typical airspeed, altitude and heading tapes, the primary flight display (PFD) employs a “highway-in-the-sky” (HITS) predictive flight director in which the pilot only has to keep the flight path indicator in the green rectangles to maintain the desired course and altitude. When asked if the HITS could be changed to standard wings-style flight director symbology, Howard accessed a back door to the administrator settings that allowed this change. Within a few keystrokes, I was looking at command bar flight director wings on the pilot-side display while the co-pilot side still displayed the HITS rectangles, demonstrating the advantages of Open Architecture System Integration Symbology (OASIS).
Display real estate is smartly utilized, and screens are packed with information at a glance, usually with an option to declutter non-essential data. For most of the flight, I elected to keep an eye on ADS-B enhanced traffic on one half-screen display and weather at a glance along my route of flight on another. Panning a cursor over a nearby airport with the display’s side buttons allowed more weather and airport info to be accessed. The moving map on my NAV display depicted airspace along my route as an easy-to-understand solid line if I were low enough to run into it and a dotted line if I were at an altitude that would clear it. Radios and transponder were tuned by entering a virtual NAV/COM panel that pops up over the lower-half display when accessed.
Getting down to pattern altitude from our cruise altitude of 11,500 ft was made simple by setting a geographically based descent to a user- or database-defined waypoint, or VNAV profile. We chose a T/D, or top-of-descent altitude, and a preferred VNAV CDA, or climb/descend angle. The IDU-680 then adjusted the HITS rectangles accordingly, so we could precisely fly the proper descent, arriving at our termination altitude in time to enter the pattern at our destination.
Howard was quick to point out that this vertical profile could be flown by an autopilot if installed. This brings up another important factor in XP Services’ choice to develop the Genesys digital cockpit: Genesys’ three-axis HeliSAS autopilot in development for the Black Hawk.
The last leg of the trip was spent at low level, evaluating the HTAWS and 3-D synthetic vision. The database of obstacles was extensive and accurate, and the system gave ample warning of a collision when I challenged it. The hills and valleys were accurately depicted, and their changing color code intuitively increased situational awareness at a glance.
Near the end of the flight, Allison smartly pointed out that while any evaluation can include a wish list of additions such as remote keyboards, care must be taken to not undermine the simplicity of this system.
“It will do a great job as is,” said Allison.
After two days of flying across the country as a civilian at the controls of this modern-day version of a historically capable aircraft, I must agree. And with the latest UH-60M variant costing $18 million to 25 million in contrast, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a major contractor take interest and agree in the near future as well. RWI