Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 40 seconds.
When a CNC Technologies military customer acquired a fleet of Bell 429 helicopters, the Oak Park, California, aviation technology and wireless communications company turned to AeroBrigham for the specialized mission package.
The 429-fleet will support military operations, as well as coast guard, law enforcement, search-and-rescue, emergency medical, and fire services, but the customer had a unique request — interchangeable mission suites. If one aircraft was grounded, the military needed to be able to transfer the mission system into the next available helicopter and rejoin an operation with minimal delay.
AeroBrigham specializes in tailored completions and refurbishments and the Decatur, Texas, company has built a reputation for solving distinctive and complex problems. Few jobs are cut and paste. Still, what this customer was asking for required some novel thinking.
Among the systems AeroBrigham was tasked to install and integrate were a CNC Technologies’ mission suite with a Churchill Navigation moving map system, a WESCAM MX-10 GEN IV camera/thermal imaging system, Troll System microwave downlink technology, and an Eagle digital audio system, as well as a L3 Falcon III multi-channel airborne networking radio with high-speed IP-networked data and full motion video.
“They wanted to operate everything from the cabin, so we fabricated a large TFO station that slides on rails.”David Brigham
Not only did the customer require a fully integrated mission suite that could be easily removed and transferred to another aircraft by fewer than five personnel in under 15 minutes, but it also wanted the mission suite in a tactical flight officer (TFO) station with a 22-inch monitor that could be stowed directly behind the co-pilot and rolled aft during operations.
“Those were some unique completions,” admitted David Brigham, president and co-owner of AeroBrigham, located in a 15,000-square-foot hangar on the Decatur Municipal Airport.
In recent years, the company had completed several modifications on law enforcement aircraft, but this specialized helicopter required a unique design and some well-thought-out electrical and mechanical solutions to meet the customer’s specifications.
“They wanted to operate everything from the cabin, so we fabricated a large TFO station that slides on rails,” Brigham explained. “No one has ever made anything quite like it. And no one has ever made one that transitions from a stowed position — it can roll to the operator in a forward-facing seat. But we had to figure out how to make that station accommodate the 22-inch monitor, as well as the downlink system and the other mission equipment, and design it to fit in just one aft-facing seat space. They wanted to keep the other five seats in the cabin. That was a bit of a challenge. We had to get creative to make everything interchangeable.”
All wiring for the mission systems had to be routed into the center pedestal and made accessible to the TFO station cable connectors. To allow the station to slide fore and aft 12 inches, the cabling had to accommodate the movement and still be easily stored on the station when the mission suite is being transferred to another aircraft. In short, the architecture had to be plug-and-play so the entire station could be moved and reconnected without the use of tools.
“It’s a nice tidy package,” Brigham said. “When they want to move the mission suite, they stow the cables on the built-in storage on the TFO station, take the station out, take the thermal imaging system and the search light off, and put those three components on the airframe next door. They don’t have to worry about having cables lying around.”
Installing and integrating the encrypted communication system, microwave downlink, and digital audio system “was a new challenge,” he said, that was solved in part through a growing partnership with CNC Technologies, which provides military and law enforcement agencies with mission suite design services and live technical support. “CNC provided the basic architecture of the system, and AeroBrigham designed the detailed interface to make everything talk.”
The communications system can broadcast audio and high-definition video to up to 200 receivers simultaneously, from the aircraft to handheld radios, another aircraft or ground vehicles. “It is all beyond line of sight, which is pretty cool technology. It goes out over UHF and VHF radio signals, which are typically line of sight only,” Brigham explained. The encrypted radio system is networked to military channels while the microwave downlink “is specific to CNC receive sites on the ground.”
AeroBrigham completed the modifications over an eight-month period, and four of the missionized 429s are now in service with the customer. “The mission suites are doing exactly what they want them to do,” and that is attracting the interest of other law enforcement agencies with a need for interchangeable mission suites, Brigham said.