A stark report on the U.S. rotorcraft industrial base may pose a test for the trade group that sponsored it as well as for the nation.
The report, "Securing the Future of America’s Rotorcraft Industry," warns that the United States’ ability to design and build advanced — in fact, even "basic" — rotorcraft is withering on the vine because of a combination of government and corporate policies.
"Rotary-wing design and engineering staffs — the true core of America’s rotorcraft advantage — have little prospect of future military work, and are losing the technical skills necessary to develop the next generation of rotorcraft," says the report of the Rotary-Wing Revitalization Project of the Aerospace Industries Assn (AIA).
The 11 members of that project, drawn from defense contractors including, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and United Technologies, make a concise and compelling argument that rotorcraft engineers are a breed apart from their fixed-wing brethren. For example, they are forced to work with computer-aided design tools incapable of modeling a rotorcraft’s complex aerodynamics and must solve a unique set of problems with every design.
"It takes up to 10 years to get trained aerospace engineers qualified as rotorcraft engineers," the report notes.
But because manufacturers and the Pentagon have long focused on remanufacturing or modifying existing designs, a whole generation of engineers has been denied the chance to hone its skills on new designs.
The group calls for a joint Pentagon office to champion rotorcraft development (including new X-project), restored NASA funding of rotorcraft R&D, and greater corporate investment in R&D — all tall orders given budgets and spending priorities.
But first the AIA must decide how hard to lobby for the group’s conclusions and recommendations in Congress and the White House, which some in the rotorcraft R&D community see as a test for the trade group’s new head, Marion Blakey. A former FAA administrator, Blakey has little military or R&D background, unlike her predecessor, John Douglass, who had served as assistant Navy secretary for research, development, and acquisition.