By By Andrew Drwiega | October 1, 2011
John Piasecki, president and CEO of Piasecki Aircraft Corp., is one of Frank Nicholas Piasecki’s seven children. Piasecki Senior flew his first helicopter on April 11, 1943, the PV-2. Before the end of WWII, the first tandem helicopter was airborne, the XHRP-1. The “Flying Banana” would straighten out in time to transform into today’s ubiquitous Chinook.
Hearing John Piasecki speak about his father, one of the true pioneers of the helicopter industry, reaffirmed the urgency, in fact the absolute necessity for that pioneering spirit to become resurgent now, perhaps more so than at any time in the last couple of decades. His keynote speech at the Breeze Eastern User Conference in Newark, N.J., in early September, began in true pioneer style by turning the negative into a positive: “When we listen to customer problems, we get an insight into opportunities. It is that mindset that we have to adopt in order to be responsive,” he said. Yes, we were in tough times, but when “a mess like this breaks,” also came a breaking down of the barriers of bureaucracy. It was time once again to encourage the human spirit between people. Moreover, it was time to get back to understanding the needs of the customer and to really appreciate their problems. In manufacturing, what was required was a “cross pollination” of understanding between design and engineering disciplines. Big industry’s trend was to focus on development, discipline by discipline, without really being appreciative of the challenges faced by others in their drive to push forward: “The aero guy wants to make it slick with low drag, but the weight penalty of that affects the weights engineer and the stresses guy, who want to throw the first guy off the bus.” The way ahead lay in multi disciplined processes and approaches to each new challenge.
Following this, he continued, was the fundamental need “to move ideas quickly from concept to hardware fabrication and testing.” This was firmly a management issue and needed more focus going forward. “We have got to get to, and manage, the unknown as fast as possible.” Of course, there was never going to be enough money—especially in the current environment, but he reminded his audience of the manufacturer’s essential need to begin flight testing to move the process forward.
A resolute management approach needs several factors: agility, core values, imagination and discipline. And the give-away piece of advice that comes as standard from a pioneering pedigree rather than a corporate leviathan: You’re never going to get it right first time so don’t let it get you down but get back on your feet fast.”
The helicopter industry was facing four big challenges, he said. The first two were relatively new, given the geographically punishing parts of the world in which the military now prosecute their operations. And two that have always been there but that have been, if not ignored, then certainly treated with unwarranted levels of comfort. There are the twin tyrannies of distance and high-density altitude, said Piasecki. These regimes have fundamentally changed from where we were—going from 4K/95 to 6K/95—and represent “a whole shift in rotorcraft development.” “You have to go around mountains [in Afghanistan] so we can’t do the jobs we are assigned to do as quickly as we want and that means we often use more helicopters—and that is a high cost in manpower and vulnerability.” Within this area of vulnerability is the need for survivability too, he added.
Then came funding. “This country is in financial straits. We have this demand for increased capability with no resources to solve it; so we must look to technology.” And finally time. During his father’s earlier years he recalled, the first contract signing took a mere 13 months. “But we as an industry have put ourselves into a death spiral because we take 25-30 years to develop a new platform, and that’s usually after we have decided to go with production [citing the V-22 Osprey and RAH-66 Comanche as prime examples].
“If you go onto [Capitol] Hill today and tell them you want to pitch a new start vertical platform which they can have by 2036 they are going to laugh at you.” Change is necessary, but it needs to be led by a reform of our business practices,” he said. This has to happen fast—in fact it has to happen now. “If you look at the overall timeframe of the current fleet, then over 50 percent of decision points on what we are going to do with our existing helicopters occurs in the next 10 years. So if you overlay a 25-30 year development cycle over that you currently get a disconnect. We need technology development, we need to do it faster and move to the next generation more rapidly. But we need to be looking at technologies to transition through the existing fleet into the future fleet.” That, he concluded, was the path the next generation multi-role.