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AFRL team wins major aviation honor

An Air Force Research Laboratory team has landed a major aerospace award for two designs on cargo hauling aircraft, beating out the Chinese Air Force and a record-setting, near space manned parachute jump for the aviation honor.

The AFRL team, headquartered in the Aerospace Systems Directorate at Wright-Patterson, worked with hundreds of defense and aerospace workers around the country, to share the Aviation Week Laureate Award for Aeronautics and Propulsion with Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. The team, which collaborated with NASA, received the Aviation Week award at a Washington, D.C., black-tie ceremony.

“We started out 10 years ago looking to change the state-of-the-art and we did,” said Barth Shenk, an AFRL aerospace engineer who called the Agile Speed Concept Demonstrator the group worked on a “game-changing technology.”

“We did something for the Air Force, but the world noticed and that’s what it really kind of says.”

One of five award finalists, the AFRL project beat competitors including the Chinese Air Force, which has fielded a variety of new aircraft, and Art Thompson, project leader of the Red Bull Stratos project, the highest manned parachute drop ever last year that started on the edge of space. The AFRL team also eclipsed finalist Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who has pushed for alternative fuel research in aircraft and ships, and the Eurocopter X-3, a full-scale hybrid prototype that combined both turboprop and helicopter rotary technology.

“Honestly, I was surprised that we won given the competition we were up against,” said Cale Zeune, 32, of Beavercreek, and an AFRL aerospace engineer and program manager.

The Agile Speed Powered Lift System Concept Demonstration, as the project was dubbed, developed large-scale, wind tunnel aircraft models to demonstrate that next generation cargo haulers could land and take off in shorter distances, carry more cargo and fly faster than a C-130 using existing engine technology. The cargo plane could be converted into an aerial tanker, gunship or flown on special forces missions, they said. The concept was tested in the world’s largest wind tunnel at NASA’s Moffett Field in California to a high-tech flight simulator at Wright-Patterson.

“The biggest single challenge was trying to make the system work with available engine technology,” said Shenk, 49, of Bellbrook. “Typically, when you see new aircraft ideas and things like that coming around they’re centered on everything new.

“In so doing, it made the technical problem more difficult, but at the same time it saves years and billions” of dollars in expense, Shenk said.

The short take off and landing capability lets planes fly out of smaller airfields away from bigger, congested airports, he said. “The civil market can also conceivably use this technology,” he said.

The Air Force has not set aside money to build a full-scale prototype, although Shenk said the technology has reached a starting point. “Over a period of a long time, we incrementally built a fundamental technology that’s ready to be used,” he said.

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