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UT Arlington, Sikorsky Aircraft seeking stronger aircraft

🕐 5 min read

Where most see rotary blades and wings, Andrew Makeev recognizes the structural underpinnings that make flight possible.

Perhaps more important, the University of Texas at Arlington professor sees ways to strengthen existing aircraft while boosting pilot safety.

It’s all in a day’s work for Makeev, a professor in the school’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and director of its Advanced Materials and Structures Lab.

“We have been working on this for a few years,” said Makeev, referring to composite materials research and the potential for making aircraft lighter, stronger and safer.

Thanks to a $1.35 million grant from the Army National Rotorcraft Technology Center, Makeev and a small team at the university are collaborating with Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to study ways to design such materials and bring composite aircraft into production more quickly.

The effort is the latest step of the Vertical Lift Consortium Program, a multi-year collaboration of UT Arlington, Bell Helicopter, Boeing Inc., Sikorsky and Penn State University.

The project began in 2009 at Georgia Tech and moved to UT Arlington in 2011 when Makeev was invited to lead the Advanced Materials and Structures Lab. The role came naturally for Makeev, whose interest in composites began when he oversaw risk management at Delta Air Lines.

“The goal was to advance, potentially, composite materials technology to improve recognized weakness of composites including compression and strength properties,” said Makeev, who is considered by his peers as a national authority on composites research.

Makeev and his UT Arlington team are not charged with building a better aircraft. Rather, they’re developing stronger materials at cheaper production costs before the aircraft are brought to market. The team has no firm deadline but hope to get whatever it finds into production within 10 or 20 years, depending on the type of structure.

“There is a big push to make this time shorter,” said Makeev, explaining that hundreds of materials must be tested and every layout variation of composite fibers must be evaluated.

“It’s like a building-block approach,” Makeev said.

Sikorsky Aircraft stands to benefit from that approach as one of its engineering and design centers is located in Fort Worth. The company, based in Stamford, Conn., manufactures Black Hawk and presidential helicopters as well as helicopters used by all five branches of the nation’s armed forces.

Before arriving at the Arlington campus, Makeev poured countless hours into a project studying three-dimensional imaging techniques and understanding the effects of manufacturing on composite performance. The very nature of the project, known as Integration of Design and Manufacturing Processes to Improve Performance on Composites, has confounded researchers for years.

Metals’ inherent structure has posed no problem when aircraft designers want to study their internal structure. Composite materials, on the other hand, have been used less frequently than metal because less is known about their performance, not to mention the difficulty in meeting certain certification standards.

“We need to come up with something that will work,” said Makeev.

Air turbulence forces variable loads onto aircraft wings, and helicopter blades often face even more stress. Cracks caused by structural fatigue often show up inside the blades or wings, so detecting potential weakness during routine inspection is difficult; in addition, fatigue cracks only appear in composites after many flight hours.

That’s often forced designers to be overly cautious, coming up with structures that may be unnecessarily heavy. It’s Makeev’s mission to find a way to peer inside each part to gain a glimpse into fatigue crack development.

Predicting the strength and fatigue life of any new composite material used in rotorcraft design is critical to Makeev’s mission.

“It’s a race we set our minds to lead,” said Erian Armanios, professor and chairman of the school’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department whose admiration for Makeev runs deep.

“Dr. Makeev is a brilliant researcher with unique skills in the development of predictive models and methods to measure key material properties enabling accurate predictions,” Armanios said.

Results of the research stand to benefit not only commercial and military helicopters, but also larger aircraft.

“The benefits also will impact fixed-wing aircraft such as the Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner,” said Armanios, noting that the aircraft is made with 50 percent composite materials.

Though beholden to no timeline, both Makeev and Armanios acknowledge the competitive aeronautics industry and the impetus to push research to production.

“In my book, this is a race because you want to make sure once the industry builds newer aircraft, you have to make sure you support that and move at the pace of competition.”

That said, research is the mission, not production. Makeev and his team plan to develop and test composite aircraft materials before the fruits of their research are put into production.

“We are not replacing fighters, just trying to come up with materials to make them stronger,” Makeev said.

Lockheed purchasing Sikorsky

Lockheed Martin announced in July that it will purchase Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. for $9 billion, pushing further into the world of military hardware despite a recent slowdown in Pentagon spending.

The deal broadens Lockheed’s reach into a new piece of military equipment — and into international markets. Lockheed manufactures the F-35 fighter, unmanned drones and missiles. But it didn’t make helicopters, until now. The deal also puts Lockheed in competition with another Tarrant area defense contractor, Textron’s Bell Helicopter.

Sikorsky, a division of United Technologies, makes some of the government’s most widely used helicopters, including the Black Hawk. In 2014, it won a contract to manufacture the new Marine One, the president’s official helicopter.

As part of the deal, Lockheed will take on the lucrative maintenance work on the more than 4,000 Black Hawks in use worldwide.

Lockheed executives said the company would also use Sikorsky as a gateway into more foreign markets. In 2014, nearly half of Sikorsky’s sales were to foreign customers. The Saudi Arabian Navy, for example, ordered 10 Sea Hawk helicopters in May. Sikorsky also sold a modified Black Hawk to the Jordanian royal family for $21 million.

Foreign sales made up 20 percent of Lockheed’s revenue in 2014 and company officials have said it could reach 25 percent in coming years.

Lockheed executives said they expect the merger, which must be approved by regulators, to be completed by the end of the year. Lockheed will avoid paying nearly $2 billion in taxes because of the way it structured the deal with United Technologies. – Jacob Bogage, The Washington Post

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