Eagle Works

Frankenplane; it flies!

January 1, 2005

Lockheed Martin has its Skunk Works, Boeing has Phantom Works, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, has Eagle Works. As is true at the better-known research centers, strange things fly there and many of the details are secret. Such is the case with an airplane students have dubbed Frankenplane because of its kludge of parts.

Done under contract with a private company, Frankenplane is a conventional Cessna Skymaster with an unconventional modification, an off-the-shelf trike (a trike is a tricycle-shape ultralight slung beneath a wing) wing bolted on top. The fabric wing's job (it also contains aluminum spars and fiberglass components) is to absorb 2,400 pounds of the Skymaster's weight (well within the wing's lifting capabilities), allowing shorter takeoffs and landings: a lift-augmentation system. To do that the Skymaster must fly slowly, and with the wing this aircraft is capable of maintaining level flight at 49 knots (the trike wing is approved to fly at more than 80 knots). Its goal is to land and take off in the length of a football field.

The trike wing is not the only solution that will be tested, however. Eagle Works chief Peter S. Pierpont plans to test a system for JRL Consulting Services that will allow the wing to extend in flight, adding extra lift for low-speed landings and takeoffs. Many of the details are secret, such as the engines to be used. It is called the "Humvee-of-the-Sky." While the "Humvee-of-the-Sky" has neither the true hover nor vertical landing capabilities of rotary-wing craft, it overcomes these differences through the exceptional performance capabilities that enable it to have longer mission duration, sprint faster and higher, require only marginally more room for landing, and remain more resilient to hostile fire. In the Skymaster application, it has a short-field capability of about 300 feet, a top speed of 300 knots, a best rate of climb of 2,500 fpm, a loiter time of almost 17 hours (by shutting down one engine), a range of nearly 1,300 nm, and near-silent flight at 70 to 90 knots. Details on how it does that are a secret, but it could be accomplished by using a jet engine.

The trike wing research phase is concluded, and I rode at the engineer's position on a demonstration flight. Pierpont intentionally kept the flight well within the trike wing's capabilities by taking off and landing in 500 feet, as opposed to its maximum-effort capability of 300 feet, and flying at 52 knots in ground effect (as opposed to its 49-knot capability), and climbing no more than 10 feet off a 10,500-foot Daytona Beach International Airport runway.

Beside me sat an Embry-Riddle graduate student from Malaysia who monitored a computer screen filled with data as the flight unfolded. He is employed by Pierpont as a flight-test engineer. Because the aircraft's airspeed needle barely moves during the flight, Pierpont needs a constant stream of airspeed call-outs from the flight-test engineer to maintain the proper airspeed. The computer also monitors strain gauges attached to the trike wing to determine its lift.

In flight the aircraft rocks gently as the tip of the fabric wing stalls slightly, dips, and gains flying speed once again. Since speeds are low, flight controls are sluggish and require large movements of the aircraft's ailerons and rudders. There are no moveable controls on the trike wing. Pierpont's only control of the trike wing is a cable that can be used to lower the trike wing's angle of attack, but for the demonstration flight it was not used.

Worldwide talent collection

The presence of the Malaysian student, Mohammad Shazlan Mohammad Anwar, served to highlight the multinationality of the students, graduate students, and recent graduates who make up the Applied Engineering and Research Center — the formal name for the ERAU Eagle Works. Neil Ramphal, head of maintenance and modification, is from Trinidad, and flight-test engineer Charles Ndungu Njenga and senior design engineer Isaac Nguri Wanjohi are from Kenya. (When the two Kenyans get together, all that is heard is Swahili.) Handling financial advice for Eagle Works is Vitaly S. Guzhva, who was until 1995 a major in the Russian air force flying and instructing in transport aircraft. It takes a global village to make an airplane.

While the staff is multinational, it is multitalented as well. Richard "Pat" Anderson, an Embry-Riddle engineering assistant professor, spent this past summer as a consulting engineer for Gulfstream Aerospace, aiding with fly-by-wire proof-of-concept aircraft and simulation capabilities. Eagle Works engineering chief James Ladesic will next spend a year at Gulfstream. The test flight director at ERAU is Embry-Riddle Assistant Professor David Culbertson, a former instructor at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and Naval Training Command in several aircraft, including the F/A-18 fighter. Pierpont, whom I first met when he was a Pitts test pilot in the Aviat Aircraft factory, is a former chairman of the Embry-Riddle Engineering Technology Department who founded Eagle Works. He headed air and sea maintenance and engineering projects, including an electronic warfare program, while in the U.S. Navy.

Some major projects

Eagle Works was formalized a year ago and given its own home in two large hangars on the Daytona Beach airport containing three offices. Smaller T-hangars house additional research aircraft. Even before it was formalized Embry-Riddle was in the secret-aircraft design business. Remember The New Piper's brief flirtation with development of a business jet? Perhaps you may also recall a NASA award presented at Oshkosh to Embry-Riddle students in 1998 for the design of a business jet. Now it can be told: The award-winning design was done under agreement with New Piper and was to be its business jet. Until recently the 70 students and faculty were under a nondisclosure agreement — heady stuff for kids preparing for the "real" world, and verification that New Piper put its design money in the right place. Those students were in engineering classes taught by Anderson and Ladesic.

In addition, the present-day Eagle Works has done engineering to verify the data of Frasca flight simulators. It also did developmental work on the installation of the SMA diesel engine in a Cessna 182 that is now certified in France. Third-party work for Boeing was done on the development of skis for the Boeing Apache helicopter flown by the Japanese air force. Present projects include development of the Mistral rotary aircraft engine and development of futuristic avionics for the NASA Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS).

Mistral Engines is based in Geneva, Switzerland, with U.S. headquarters conveniently located in Daytona Beach. Embry-Riddle is a major player in testing the 230-horsepower pulsed-rotary engine and preparing it for certification. While Mistral designed the gearbox that brings the rpm down from 6,000 to 2,100 for takeoff, the prototype uses an engine block and rotor built by Mazda. Production engines will use all-Mistral parts. Planned in several sizes from 180 to 360 horsepower, initial work is on an avgas-burning, two-rotor 230-horsepower model. A jet-fuel-burning model is on the test bench in Switzerland. At Embry-Riddle, it is mounted on a Piper Arrow.

Pierpont flew it in formation for photos for this article, while Culbertson rode along to monitor temperatures and performance of the experimental engine. When everything checked out, I was allowed to fly it for a brief out-and-back demo flight. Whirring like a turbine engine and nearly vibration free, the engine gave adequate but not spectacular takeoff performance but then initially climbed into the 94-degree Fahrenheit, humid Florida air at 1,000 feet per minute. Power was intentionally kept at cruise settings or below, but speeds averaged 130 to 140 knots. The initial cost of the Mistral G-230TS (turbo model) is planned to be $36,000.

Time between overhauls for the engine is promised to be 3,000 hours. It has no crankshaft. "This will never break," predicted Pierpont as he pointed to the propeller shaft coming from the rotor. It is liquid cooled to avoid shock cooling and has a single-lever digital engine control for reduced pilot workload, easier starts, and optimal engine settings in all flight phases. It mounts on standard Dynafocal or bed-type engine mounts. Pierpont is a believer in the engine's potential, but Mistral will have to overcome doubts of those in the United States who feel they have seen it all before. Mazda offers the rotary Wankel engine in few car models, and major aircraft engine manufacturers have spent millions to explore its potential. Aside from aviation companies, General Motors explored the engine's potential. So did John Deere. All have left it on the shelf until now. Mistral brought the philosophical and mechanical power of several European universities to bear on this one-pulse-per-rotation engine and may have come up with a few solutions that Embry-Riddle hopes to prove.

Now preparing for a demonstration of SATS (Small Aircraft Transportation System) technologies at Danville, Virginia, next year, Embry-Riddle is one of several research centers exploring affordable but high-tech displays for small aircraft that might become the air transportation system of the future. Airports are crowded, yet few new ones are built. What is needed, NASA suggests, is an air taxi system that skips today's major hubs altogether and utilizes nearly all of today's more than 5,000 airports.

Embry-Riddle Professor Steven Hampton took me for a flight demonstration of Embry-Riddle's SATS glass cockpit aboard a Cessna 310. It uses highway in the sky (HITS), meaning that the pilot's course is marked on a large screen by a series of boxes. Keep flying through the boxes and you'll get to your destination. He called up an approach for an airport near Daytona Beach, an airport that didn't actually have an instrument approach, and entered the runway he wanted. The green boxes directed him from our present location through a descending turn to the runway, much like an ILS. Some of the technology on the screen is available now through commercial glass-cockpit manufacturers such as Chelton, Avidyne, and Garmin. A future project is to add infrared-enhanced vision to the screen, but yet make it affordable for small aircraft. Forward-Vision builds a system now for light airplanes (see " Pilot Products: Forward Vision FLIR," page 103).

Will the Eagle fly?

Obviously the future of Eagle Works depends on industry and on the ability of its leaders to attract new projects and funding. There are plans, however, including a research park and a dedicated Eagle Works building.

Embry-Riddle President George H. Ebbs said the research center is an outgrowth of the kind of education that Embry-Riddle provides. "We're very much into the tactile aspects of engineering as much as the intellectual aspects. We want our graduates to walk out of here having applied some things.

"Frankly we're a pretty good alternative [for industry] to doing it in-house. Secondly, we're a pretty efficient operation. All of our companies haven't been Wall Street stars yet, but we're betting a few of them will be." Larger firms will realize that ideas that may take six months to two years in the bureaucracy of their own firms will be tested much more quickly at Embry-Riddle, Ebbs said. He expects rapid growth over the next five years.

"This place is in its incipient stages, and it's about to blow up," said Director of Centers for Engineering Research David Shannon.


E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.