If you are into Tom Clancy novels or the exploits of Seal Team 6, then you quickly form a picture of “special missions” in your mind. If that were the case for this article, since you probably do not have the required security clearance, you know what comes next. I could tell you about the special mission equipment … but then I would have to kill you. Fortunately, this is not the case. Special mission equipment for helicopters is as varied as the helicopters themselves. Special mission equipment could be the installation of a Bambi Bucket for fire fighting, or a rescue hoist and litters for search-and-rescue operations, sophisticated avionics for maritime surveillance and coastal patrol, or searchlights and infrared detectors and monitors for law enforcement organizations. There are a host of other applications we could mention, but I think you get my drift.
The vast majority of these installations are not performed by the helicopter OEM. Usually, the end-user customer takes delivery of the helicopter from the OEM and then contracts with a third-party, full-service aviation center to install the special mission equipment. Third-party services can be provided by an FBO, MRO facility or a modification center. Whatever title the third-party installer goes by, they need to have an engineering department for design work and usually an in-house designated engineering representative (DER) to act as liaison with the FAA for design and engineering approval.
For this article, I worked with the staff of Summit Aviation in Middletown, DE, at Summit Airport (KEVY). It started operations in 1960 and is the oldest continually-operating aircraft company in the state of Delaware. The Greenwich Aerogroup purchased it in 2008. Summit Aviation has an extensive U.S. and international customer base that includes U.S. and international government, military and civil operators. It performs work on both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircrafts. Its services include:
A good rule to follow in any project, whether it is painting a room in your house or doing a special mission equipment installation on a helicopter, is to plan your work and then work your plan. At Summit Aviation, this starts with a project management overview process. This helps determine how the project will be driven. The project is broken down into key areas and departments within the company. The project being managed then drives the time line to be given to each area. The summary areas are:
Step One –Customer data gathering and design
Step Two – planning and methods
Step Three – engineering
Step Four – certification
Step Five – procurement
Step Six – operations
Step Seven –quality control/quality assurance
Step Eight – change orders
Step Nine – aircraft presentation/customer delivery
As you can see, there is more to an installation than just “plug it in and play with it.” Customers often just do not understand the complexities of an installation. All they know is that they want some type of display on the instrument panel and a controller in the center pedestal. What’s the big deal? Let’s take a look at the big deal to better understand the real complexities of a third-party equipment installation.
To begin, let’s suppose that a helicopter owner is interested in having some special mission equipment installed. What has to happen first? From what we see listed above, it is necessary to gather customer data and design information. This allows an accurate work specification to be created, priced and timed. Meeting with representatives of the company that owns the helicopter helps Summit Aviation learn what the customer’s typical flight profile is, and whether or not any maintenance and inspection items are due. Are there any avionics repairs or upgrades to be accomplished? This helps to determine/evaluate the customer’s schedule expectations.
From these meetings, the sales team can assemble the first draft of the work scope specification. Then the design, sales and operations teams meet to review the company’s requests and determine the cost and down time required on the helicopter.
Final meetings are held with the customer or their representative to finalize as required:
Now, the finalized documents become what are termed “deliverables” to the customer that include:
Once the customer or their representative has approved the deliverables and signed the contract, Summit Aviation can move forward with engineering and procurement. If the customer requests changes after this has occurred, than a change order process takes place. This can have ramifications that include change in cost, materials and down time.
The first step in the work process is data gathering. Some of the questions that could arise that would have an impact on the cost and time to completion are:
How about power distribution? Again, as part of the data-gathering and design process, the power requirements for specific equipments being installed or modified are adhered to, and if necessary, additional support equipment may be required (alternators, generators, inverters, batteries, etc.)
Planning and Methods
The second step is planning and methods. Here Summit Aviation looks at what the actual installation steps are that need to be followed. The questions answered here are:
The third step in the process is engineering. This is where the drawings are made to become the blueprint for the installation. Discussions here are:
The fourth step in the work flow is to obtain certification for the work being accomplished. Should an STC be required, Summit Aviation would follow the following steps to receive STC approval:
Throughout the fabrication and installation of the completion, the certification team creates, documents and monitors the results of bum testing on materials and material build ups, conducts engineering analysis of the installation, creates ground test plans and flight test plans, creates flight manual supplements to the existing flight manual, and creates instructions for continued airworthiness (ICA).
After all requirements have been met successfully, the certification team submits the entire data package to the FAA for approval. Upon the issuance of a type inspection authorization (TIA), the certification team works with the FAA, while the FAA reviews and comments on the data package, installations and ground tests. The certification team will accompany the FAA and designated airworthiness representative (DAR) on the required flight tests, and coordinate any changes required by the FAA with engineering or operations.
As in any installation, getting all the bits and pieces together when required is a bit more difficult than going to the local Radio Shack store to buy some coaxial cable. The fifth step in the work flow is procurement. Procurement not only has to get the special mission equipment, but the required cabling, connectors and miscellaneous bits and pieces required. In some instances, availability and lead times to obtain what is required will have a serious impact on the length of time the project will take. Some considerations looked at here are:
The sixth process in our work flow is operations. This is where the actual installation of the special mission equipment happens. Any special fabrication of any kind also occurs during this phase of the work flow process. Operations uses the master schedule to drive all the milestones for maintenance, fabrication and installation.
The key inputs for the production team are the customer design specification, the design drawings and illustrations and the engineering drawings. The production team’s primary vehicle for fabrication is engineering drawings and the process specification. The technical fabrication of the components is driven by these. Should there be an aesthetic design to the installation, this is driven by the customer design specification and design drawings and illustrations. If inconsistencies are found or roadblocks are experienced during the fabrication and installation process, the production team notifies the design team, sales team and/or engineering team for additional guidance and direction.
Quality Control/Quality Assurance
The inspection department’s first responsibility during a specific project is to take the customer design specification and create the work order. Throughout the project, the inspection department also maintains the work order through the addition of change orders. During the maintenance, fabrication and installation phases of the project, the inspection department or their designee will observe and sign off on each task done within the item numbers of the work order, confirming that the work was completed and completed properly. The inspection department also conducts company conformities to confirm that the work completed matches the drawings that have been generated. If there are errors on the engineering drawings, the inspection department will document “red lines” on the drawings and return the drawings to the engineering team so that the drawings can be updated.
Finally, during the project, the inspection department oversees the receiving of parts, materials and services, as well as bum build ups to make sure all FAA regulatory requirements are met.
During the operational checks of the project, the inspection department witnesses all tests conducted by the operations team and the certification team. The inspection department will conduct, calculate and document the weight and balance for the helicopter, as well as handle all issues related to returning the aircraft to service.
If you have been in the business of doing aircraft installations, more than once you have heard some manager somewhere screaming “time is money.” The longer it takes to do the installation, the more money it costs. Changes to the original work plan can occur during all projects and the improper management of a change can become an unwarranted expense. Changes are initiated externally by the customer and/or customer representative. The eighth process in our work flow is change orders. This allows us to manage changes that occur during the project properly. When a change request is made externally or internally, the sales team, design team and/or operations team reviews the change request to determine:
The change order is then created. If the change is for internal purposes only, the change order is used as a vehicle to have a new item added to the work order through the inspection department. The change order then goes through the planning and methods process.
If the change requires customer approval, it is submitted to the customer. No more action is taken if the customer denies the change order. If the customer approves the change order, then a new item is added to the work order and the change order goes through the planning and methods process.
In the planning and methods process, if an impact was made to the schedule, the work schedule is modified and republished to the customer. If the change results in an engineering change, then an engineering change request is created and routed to the engineering department so the proper drawings can be amended. If the change is to be reflected on an engineering drawing, the purchasing department works with the engineering department to identify the proper part number so the bill of material can be changed. If the engineering department is not involved, then the purchasing department creates a purchase requisition form for the generation of a new purchase order.
Although change orders can and do occur and are an accepted procedure in installing or modifying systems, they are recognized as being detrimental to staying on budget and on schedule.
Now that all the work has been completed, we come to the last step in the work flow and that is to present the aircraft to the customer for approval and delivery. Once the customer approves the work and accepts the aircraft, it is considered “successfully delivered.” To do this, these final procedures must be accomplished:
As you can see, installing equipment — special mission or any kind — in a helicopter is not just “plug it in and play with it.” That might work on your iPad, but not on your helicopter. The steps employed are many, but are in place to ensure the best possible installation at the lowest cost and least amount of aircraft down time. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right the first time and every time.
My thanks to the great staff at Summit Aviation for their help in writing this article.