REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (Oct. 7, 2022) – At a price of $30,000 Army aviation was born.
The year was 1909 when the Army purchased the Wright Military Flyer from famed brothers, Orville and Wilbur, making it the world’s first military airplane, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
It was only the beginning.
Rotorcraft entered the mix in December 1940 at a price of $50,000 – the amount the U.S. Army Air Force awarded to Sikorsky to develop the XR-4. It would be the first mass produced, U.S. military accepted helicopter.
Vietnam brought the “Helicopter War,” revolutionizing the way the Army used its aircraft to transport troops and supplies, conduct reconnaissance, and provide close air support.
Iroquois. Chinook. Cobra. Black Hawk. Apache.
And on July 13, 2022, U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center Experimental Test Pilot Maj. Wes Ogden became the first U.S. Army aviator to fly an electric aircraft – confirming that while it may provide the ground forces that protect the United States, the Army was and continues to be a pioneer in aviation.
“Ever since the purchase of that initial aircraft from the Wright brothers, the Army has paved the way – or rather, the skies – for the Soldier, particularly in the arena of vertical flight, transforming the battlefield,” said DEVCOM AvMC Director Jeff Langhout. “As the Army’s focal point for aviation research and development, our AvMC workforce is dedicated to exploring a variety of avenues to modernize Army aviation, to include the utility of electric aircraft to fulfill missions.”
eVTOL refers to all-electric, battery-powered aircraft that take-off and land vertically. Not only would such an aircraft support the Army’s Climate Strategy with lower emissions, but potential benefits include design flexibility, reduced maintenance, reduced acoustic signatures, and less operations and support costs. While not a direct replacement for helicopters, eVTOL could complement capabilities of conventional rotorcraft, but more investigation is needed.
“There have been science and technology efforts looking at aspects of electric aircraft for several years, especially basic research efforts with our university partners,” said David Friedmann, an aerospace engineer with the AvMC Technology Development Directorate, who is helping coordinate and accelerate AvMC’s eVTOL efforts. “These include gathering data and building models for electric and hybrid-electric propulsion concepts to guide our design studies. Research focused on the limitations of the battery technology helped identify aviation specific power requirements. AvMC S&T started some applied research efforts about a year ago to further these scientific developments in a more deliberate and comprehensive manner.”
With decades of experience turning aviation research into reality for the Army, it only makes sense that AvMC is investigating use-cases that take advantage of eVTOL strengths to better serve the Soldier.
Case in point: AvMC’s partnership with AFWERX Agility Prime, the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force. Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd, Army Futures Command Deputy Commanding General for Acquisition and Systems and Chief Innovation Officer, recognized the opportunity to collaborate and leverage investments made by AFWERX and others, and identified seed funds to begin to explore eVTOL possibilities for the Army.
That introduced AvMC to BETA Technologies, based out of Burlington, Vermont, which led to Ogden’s initial evaluation flight of the BETA ALIA 250C, an eVTOL aircraft developed by BETA. U.S. Air Force pilots Hank “Hog” Griffiths and Maj. Jonathan Appleby were the first-ever Airmen to fly the aircraft March 9.
“The Army is very interested in electrification for a variety of reasons including the potential to reduce the need to transport large quantities of fuel,” said Dr. James Kirsch, director of the AvMC Software, Simulation, Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate. “Our partnership with AFWERX and BETA enables us to leverage significant investment by our sister service and industry. We can focus our funds on answering specific questions related to Army missions and airworthiness considerations for an electric aircraft. These partnerships are crucial to ensuring we maximize the impact of our dollars in providing capability to Soldiers.”
Ogden’s 1.6 hour flight included assessment of performance and handling qualities in conventional (airplane) mode. The flight test mission was intended to evaluate new technology being developed and demonstrated that electric aircraft have high potential to fill continental U.S. personnel and cargo transportation missions associated with light utility aircraft.
The BETA ALIA test flight, as well as AvMC’s work with other eVTOL developers and suppliers, “has been an opportunity to provide feedback to help identify Army specific use cases, how we can utilize not only the capabilities of this aircraft, but also reduce the logistical footprint, and reduce greenhouse emissions while conducting a variety of Army missions,” Ogden said.
The flight also lowered Ogden’s “healthy bit of skepticism that an electric aircraft with electric battery storage would be able to meet the endurance and power requirements that an aircraft would need to fly.”
“Getting up in the air and flying that aircraft for over an hour and a half, doing touch and gos, full power stalls, and other maneuvers in the air – it was able to last for an hour and a half and still land with approximately 30 minutes of storage remaining – kind of sold me a bit more. I do believe that it is a viable technology, however, there is still a lot to do,” Ogden said.
AvMC continues to engage with BETA Technologies and AFWERX, and will participate in future test flights as the aircraft progresses to the vertical take-off/landing phase of testing. The data and lessons learned will help AvMC scientists and engineers build out applicability for the Army.
Building on the productive relationship with Beta, AvMC looks forward to additional opportunities to learn with other eVTOL companies and continues to look for ways to engage with the industry.
The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.