News | Oct. 4, 2022

Navy Engineers Make Helicopter Pilots’ Most Dangerous Job Safer

By Brittany Dickerson

Landing a helicopter in low visibility environments is one of the most difficult tasks in aviation for a rotary-wing pilot; add weather like fog, wind or worse and aircraft recovery can be dangerous.

The very team who brought naval tactical aviation Precision Landing Mode (PLM) has now set sights on advancing capability and operational readiness for pilots flying legacy rotorcraft across the DOD.

“Rotary-wing pilots flying newer rotorcraft like CH-53K have the benefit of augmented landing tech built in,” said Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) engineer Matthew Rhinehart. “But there are thousands of legacy helos across the DOD that don’t—it’s a safety challenge for which we’ve engineered a proven-successful solution.”
Between 2000 and 2013, 26 Class A mishaps were attributed to degraded visuals in DOD aviation.

The engineering team is working on two prototype systems that will be integrated into aircraft to help pilots with landings. The first is the Adaptive Shipboard Guidance and Recovery Display (ASGaRD), a software system designed for pilots landing on ships at sea. The system integrates into cockpit displays to provide visual cues that allow pilots to make safer landings on pitching decks. Different from PLM, ASGaRD provides visual assistance only and does not interfere with a pilot’s flight handling. Deploying the system is as simple as a software update making it an immediate solution for rotary pilots flying legacy aircraft.

The second prototype is the Low Speed Precision Control (LSPC), a software and hardware system that helps pilots make land-based landings in low-visibility environments with dust, sand or snow. The modular system also integrates into cockpits bolted to existing controls providing pilots with landing assistance through flight control and stability modification, similar to PLM. As LSPC includes a hardware component—essentially a metal box with a lever—the system requires additional logistics for installation.

Recently, the team demoed the systems in NAWCAD’s Manned Flight Simulator, where Navy and Marine Corps test pilots successfully approached and landed rotary aircraft like an MH-60S and CH-53E in zero-visibility conditions, an extremely dangerous task for rotary pilots today.
During the demonstrations, more than 10 developmental test pilots flew mission representative tasks in simulators—in this case with degraded visuals—both with and without the augmentation tech. The results were starkly different: the test team found the systems significantly reduced pilot workload and increased safety when landing in zero-visibility environments on virtual pitching decks at sea in fog, and amidst a dust cloud in a virtual desert.

“In the lab we monitored how hard the pilots worked and how much drift they experienced, which generally precedes a mishap or crash,” Rhinehart said. “Pilots using the tech landed safely every single time—we’re confidently reducing the workload and most importantly, improving their safety.”

Both technologies target legacy aircraft including the H-60, CH-53, H-1 and V-22 aircraft. Pilots operating these aircraft would fly with both systems installed, with ASGaRD serving as an immediate solution as a simple software update.

“If NAWCAD’s visual landing aids were fielded in aircraft like MH-60R/S or legacy aircraft like CH-53E today, fleet aviators would see a safe and successful recovery every single time,” said NAWCAD engineer Jacques Hoffler.

ASGaRD is under development by Systems Technology Inc. in sponsorship by the Office of Naval Research and with support from NAVAIR. LSPC is a developmental initiative in partnership with AMERICAN SYSTEMS. Its initial design was funded by the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Office. Both technologies require funding and adoption by a rotary-wing program to mature the capabilities to fleet deployment. 

Brittany Dickerson is a public affairs specialist with Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.