- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

WILLIAMSBURG (AP) — On one side of an oversized helicopter hangar at Fort Eustis sat what Adam Sawicki, a Boeing Co. engineer, called the perfect example of old Army aviation — a Chinook cargo helicopter made almost entirely of metal.

On the other side, Mr. Sawicki said, sat the service’s future — a handful of researchers and soldiers gathered around a table and a small sheet of a black composite material.

The material, made of resin and fibers, will one day replace the metal used in making helicopters. It’s odorless, feels like a thin sheet of rigid cardboard and is lighter than metal, even the aluminum used in making most helicopters.

Its development is part of the Army’s $74 million Survivable, Affordable, Repairable Airframe Program. The Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis is managing the effort.

“What we are doing in this program is so significant because of its impact on Army aviation,” said Marc Portanova, the program’s Fort Eustis-based project engineer.

The directorate is working with Boeing, Bell Helicopters and Sikorsky Aircraft to help pay for the program and to share new technology.

“Building lighter helicopters is a big priority for the Army,” Mr. Portanova said. “A lower weight gives helicopters the ability to fly farther, fly faster, fly at a higher altitude and/or carry more stuff.”

Troops in Afghanistan have been having trouble flying Black Hawk utility helicopters in the high altitudes of the mountainous country, Mr. Portanova said. Anything that makes them lighter will help with high-altitude missions.

The program also is one way Army aviation is benefiting from the recently canceled Comanche helicopter program. The Comanche program was a 20-year, multibillion-dollar project to build a new helicopter for armed reconnaissance missions.

The program was plagued with rising costs and canceled after $6.9 billion already had been spent on its development. The Pentagon had budgeted $14 billion through 2011 to build 121 Comanches. Since the Comanche’s death, the Army has vowed to use as much of that money as possible on other aviation projects.

Mr. Sawicki said the Comanche was to be made mostly of composite material. But new technology requires new repair methods, and that’s what soldiers and researchers were testing this month at Fort Eustis.

“One of the goals we wanted to accomplish was to have the soldiers who would be doing the repair work in the field practice patching holes here in the hangar to see if it’s possible for the repairs to be done on a battlefield,” Mr. Portanova said. “Everything breaks, and we need to know that this technology can be repaired quickly.”

Sgt. 1st Class Chris Broussard, an instructor at the fort’s U.S. Army Aviation Logistics School, where soldiers are taught to maintain helicopters, said the goal was to pretend a helicopter had been shot at and left with holes in its body. His job was to take the black, sticky composite material and precisely layer tiny sheets into what looked like a thick patch.

Then he had to attach the patch to the hole and test the strength of the repair. Sgt. Broussard said the only challenge of the new material is making sure every deployed aviation unit has the tools needed for repair work.

“This new material makes the repair process a lot easier and a lot faster,” he said. “And anything to make a helicopter perform better, I’m all for.”

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