AB3NAT Surrogate in flight. Photos courtesy XP Services
Just as technology advances at the exponential rate of Moore’s law, it appears that in current times the cost of integrating such strides into aviation assets is increasing just as quickly. Still, the needs of both the military and civilian market must be fed if they are to evolve and grow. Developing a product for military use or civil certification takes time. As in most walks of life, time is money. In the world of flight testing, this is especially true. Flight testing also takes a certain expertise, including knowledge of engineering, human factors, regulation, requirements, and real-world pilot experience. For the little guy, it’s not always easy to find or maintain this type of experienced staff. Enter XP Services (XPS).
As its mission statement suggests, XPS may be the perfect solution for companies that require less than full-time flight test capability or don’t want the expense of maintaining a full-time flight test department of their own. XPS is comprised of select professionals from the U.S. military and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) test organizations well-versed in civil and military airworthiness requirements. The company’s real-world experience includes extensive special-operations, tactical and combat flying in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to present-day. They have machining capability to fabricate aircraft components, allowing them to provide any level of flight test support, from rapid-prototyping, to complete developmental flight test and airworthiness qualification. In one short sentence, XPS provides companies a source of experienced experimental flight test pilots that offer a unique set of skills and resources.
XP Services founder and president Rodney Allison (left), and FTP/FTE Jason Glenn in front of an AT-802.
Rodney Allison, founder and president, has been honing exactly this type of skill set for quite some time. A retired U.S. Army Master Aviator and graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Allison has been involved in all aspects of flight test, ranging from teaching formal educational classes to piloting both rotary and fixed-wing experimental aircraft from the very small to the very large. He is an FAA Flight Test Designated Engineering Representative (DER) with more than 10,000 flying hours logged in over 130 types of aircraft. From being a test pilot on the RAH-66 Comanche, to having type ratings in Boeing models 757/767/777/787, his more than 20 years of flight testing gives him much experience to draw upon.
“Between all our pilots, we make up a team that is qualified to fly every aircraft in the U.S. inventory and even some outside it, when you include Russian Mi-Series aircraft,” Allison said. He went on to point out that “all our personnel have received the same specialized flight test training during their careers. We were all taught from the same book. This gives us the ability to produce quality, repeatable data.” Repeatable data is key to validating any and all flight test work. If the data is “repeatable,” then another trained test pilot will be able reproduce the same results when flying under the same testing conditions.
I was fortunate enough to meet Rodney Allison in 2003 when I began the Aviation Systems Flight Test master’s degree program at the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI). His idea to start XPS was born soon after the completion of a project he led as an associate professor and project pilot at UTSI in 2006. It involved designing and testing wind deflectors for the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) MH-6M aircraft. Allison’s own Special Operations Aviation experience was key to the development of the deflectors.
Understanding the customer’s operational needs allowed for an engineering test and development program coupled with operational flying experience; and I had the privilege of being part of his design and test team. As a professor, the project ended for Allison once the deflectors were tested and optimized. He then watched as the Army took the design, and produced an exact operational model that was an overwhelming success. His excitement couldn’t be contained, and XPS was founded.
The company’s hangar facility is located on the grounds of the Tullahoma Regional Airport in middle Tennessee, a non-towered field surrounded by plenty of open airspace to conduct testing It is flanked closely by the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC), UTSI and the non-profit Momentum Foundation (a local law enforcement/educational aviation assets provider), all three of which bring high-tech flight test projects to the area. The location is a proverbial stone’s throw from Huntsville, Ala. and the Army’s Redstone Arsenal with its rotary wing flight test center. In fact, Tullahoma is named as part of the Army Aviation’s Corridor of Excellence, along with Redstone Arsenal, Fort Rucker and Eglin Air Force Base.
When it comes to networking, Allison’s list of affiliations is too long to print. A native of Arkansas, Rodney originally moved to Tennessee to attend UTSI’s Aviation Systems Flight Test master’s degree program as an Army aviator in preparation for USNTPS. He moved back there after Army retirement. Now an alumnus of UTSI, his company has a spectacular array of resources at its disposal. To date, the services the company provides have proven to fill a niche required of both civilian and military programs alike.
When Era Helicopters contracted Frasca International to develop a flight training device (FTD) modeling its Eurocopter EC135P2+ helicopter, the aerodynamic performance and handling qualities data necessary to produce an accurate simulation was unavailable from the aircraft manufacturer. Frasca’s solution was to contract test pilots from XPS, and have them gather the required data through flight test. Era Helicopters provided the aircraft, while Frasca provided flight test instrumentation and engineers.
Bell 407 in autorotation during Frasca flight test.
The aircraft was temporarily outfitted with the data collecting equipment and in a modicum of flights over a few weeks, XPS gathered all the necessary data. This method produced high-quality, repeatable data, and Frasca has since used the company on subsequent simulation projects, to include AS350B2, Bell 206 L-3 and Bell 407 FTDs, as well as the EC225, Sikorsky S-92A and S-76C++ full-flight simulators.
According to Frasca’s principle aerodynamics engineer, Chris Lyon, “XP Services has been instrumental in Frasca’s ability to provide quality training devices to the helicopter industry at a fraction of the cost of competitors.” The company’s experience in gathering repeatable flight test data safely and accurately proved to be cost-saving asset, for when the FAA went to validate some initial data, its repeatability was so good, that they decreased the number of maneuver repetitions required to satisfy its simulation qualification test guide. Recognizing evolving technology and optimizing its development is something that XPS prides itself on. This can often necessitate some creative thinking. Such is the case with being involved in conceiving and testing an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) surrogate, which emulates the capabilities of the Army’s Gray Eagle UAS for training purposes. The project capitalizes on a symbiotic relationship between XPS, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the Momentum Foundation and the U.S. Army, to develop a high-fidelity training system. The resulting Apache Block III National Airspace Trainer, or “AB3NAT,” as it is called, provides manned-to-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) training for Army aviators, albeit with much more flexibility than when training with actual UASs.
MUM-T is a capability that the Army has in its inventory, which allows a manned helicopter to control an unmanned aircraft’s systems, cameras and flight path. Limited to flight in restricted airspace only, training with an actual MUM-T UAS requires Army personnel to travel to locations in the U.S. that have both access to this type of airspace and UAS availability (many UASs are currently in-theater).
The AB3NAT project cleverly circumvents these restrictions by mounting the unmanned system sensors on an OH-58 manned aircraft surrogate, allowing training to be conducted in any airspace around the U.S. and the world. AB3NAT allows actual control of the surrogate UAS from a manned platform, providing realistic training feedback. Providing the pilots, sensor operators, and systems-integration expertise, and adding to this, their familiarity with the requirements of both the U.S. military and FAA airworthiness, the role of XPS in this project is in no way insignificant.
In one sense, to be marketable, one must possess something that everybody wants, yet something that not everybody has. To maximize either part of that equation, one must be versatile. The versatility of this company is apparent, as it not only specializes in rotorcraft systems, but crosses platforms that span both rotor and wing.
Perhaps the most recent example of versatility would be the contracting of XPS by IOMAX, USA, another innovative company born of U.S. Army Special Operations experience.
IOMAX, an integrator of special mission, fixed and rotary wing aircraft, requested XPS to gather performance data on an Air Tractor 802 agricultural spray aircraft at conditions beyond what the manufacturer had tested and certified the aircraft to do. XPS was hired for its ability to perform envelope expansion flight testing—arguably the most critical of all types of flight test, due to the risk involved in pushing past established limits. In fact, IOMAX employed XPS to do a full flight test program on a weaponized AT-802. Luckily (but not surprisingly), all of the XPS pilots maintain a U.S. Government Top Secret clearance.
The AT-802 was configured for testing carrying six GBU-58 Laser Guided Bombs and a complete sensor pod incorporating an L3 Wescam MX-15Di. Allison and his team were once again able to produce a full package of high-quality, repeatable data in three weeks—a task that would normally take months for the less-experienced and less resourceful.
The world today is a far different place than it was in the 1940s, which saw the beginning of the “X-Planes” program and the breaking of the sound barrier. It’s different than the world that saw the jet age and the rise of commercial air travel during the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s even far different than it was in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, during Vietnam and the Cold War.
We are all well-aware of the events shortly after the Millennium, and the changes they’ve brought to the world since then, emotionally and economically. During this time, the evolution of aviation on all fronts has ebbed and flowed, and many companies once born out of necessity, have since died.
But no matter what the state of the world, progress is somehow made and new needs arise. New technologies always seem to find their way into aircraft, changing the way we fly them, while at the same time, changing the way we design and test them. Sometimes it feels like we are at a standstill. But when you stop and turn around, you look back and see how far we’ve come, and how quickly at that.
Perhaps this is the new golden era of flight test—an era where small companies like XPS can thrive, thanks to their perfect balance of size, skill, resources, innovation and passion—lots of passion.