REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — Much has been said about the Army of 2030 — and 2040. But while innovative new aircraft are on the horizon, legacy rotorcraft will still play an essential part in Army aviation.
That is where the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center and its work with composites come in. Earl Thomas is the subject matter expert for advanced composite materials in the Advanced Composites laboratory, located in the center’s Prototype Integration Facility.
While the PIF does work with the project offices on the new aircraft being developed to ensure the Army can sustain the future aircraft, they also are tasked with challenges facing the current fleet. Thomas’ job includes solving some of those challenges using advanced composites, which combine desirable physical and chemical properties that include light weight coupled with high stiffness and strength. They are temperature resistant and faster to manufacture. Because of this, composites are increasingly replacing metal components.
“The current aircraft we have — the Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook fleet — are going to be around for another 50 years,” Thomas said. “As the manufacturers move to manufacturing the newer aircraft, they're going to slow down the production of replacement parts for the legacy aircraft. So even though Soldiers in the field will have to maintain those aircraft, their logistics stream is going to slow down, they won't have those replacement parts. The PIF is one of several places where Soldiers in the field will be able to get their replacement and repair parts.”
Thomas served for 25 years in the Army, where his interest in composites was sparked.
“While in the Army, I worked on the Comanche helicopter program and it was a pretty big focus in my life,” Thomas said. “That aircraft was all composites. I was exposed to a lot of advanced composite materials concepts of how we were going to be able to repair and maintain those aircraft. That got me started in the field of composites, but I was always a structural mechanic.”
That passion recently came to fruition in Thomas’ first patent. As solving Army problems is a PIF hallmark, it makes sense that the patent was born out of a problem that was presented to the facility.
“A sister service came to us — they were having problems with a work platform on their aircraft,” he said. “One was they had trouble getting a panel. The other problem was they had a severe corrosion issue with the panel, it was made of aluminum and would get a lot of moisture intrusion and then would corrode from the inside out. Problem with that is you don't know it's bad until it breaks, because you cannot see it.”
Thomas and co-worker Meredith Broadfoot knew that there was a better way. The panel had multiple problems, why not design a panel made up of a composite of materials — each one addressing a specific problem? What they came up with was so successful and unique that in May, they were awarded a patent for their work.
When not solving problems at the PIF, Thomas is also an composites instructor at a local community college. Taking the skills that he learned in Army and translating them into a classroom has been immensely rewarding, he said.
“I enjoy seeing the lightbulb click,” Thomas said. “That's what drives me – just being able to pass on my knowledge and say, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ Composites is a growing industry in not just the Army side of it but the NASA and the aerospace side. The civil aviation side is really growing.
“For someone who is 18-19 years old in a community college, they can really set themselves up for a career that will continue to grow.”
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.