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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) of Boise, Idaho. Few companies can look back after a quarter-century and know they made a difference and left a legacy in the world. But, that is exactly what ASU has done by pioneering the use of night vision goggles (NVGs) around the world.
Prior to NVGs becoming available for civilian helicopters, air ambulance pilots had one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. Often flying at night and landing in unfamiliar places, emergency medical service (EMS) helicopters had a tragic tendency to fly into objects or the ground. In fact, aircraft pilots were No.2 on the list of deadliest jobs in a 2005 CNN report.
Founded by former AH-64 Apache pilot Mike Atwood in 1995, ASU led the way–working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other agencies–to unrestricted NVG use among first-responders and law enforcement agencies.
Atwood served on the initial RTCA committee that wrote what would become the FAA’s current night-vision operating regulations. That work was completed around 1999. That same year, ASU received Part 135 operational approval from the FAA for night vision installations.
“I am proud of the fact that we played a vital part in getting this technology available for pilots and crews to use,” said Atwood. “I am proud that we have made a difference in this industry. There is no refuting the value of NVGs. Whether it is the person that needs help or transport out of a remote location, or even the pilots and crew avoiding hazards, NVGs save lives–and saving lives is our mission.”
In 1999, the first operational approval for unrestricted NVG use in a helicopter was granted to Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California. Initially, the FAA ruled that under a certain altitude, helicopter pilots had to remove their NVG headsets, but Atwood continued to insist on unrestricted use. At low altitudes, flying nearer the earth, wires, trees and other hazards is when pilots need NVGs the most, he maintained.
“For Mike, unrestricted operation was a really big deal,” said Hannah Gordon, ASU’s vice-president of administration. “He didn’t want a book or policy to tell a pilot when they should or should not be wearing goggles. He wanted the pilot to make the operational decision to wear NVGs.”
Enloe and Mercy Medical of Redding, California, were ASU’s first early adopters, according to Gordon, who was the company’s first hire and has worked there continuously for 20 years. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office soon became ASU’s first official customer.
Meanwhile, ASU continued to work closely with the FAA to iron out regulations and certify equipment. After helping others receive STCs, ASU received its own supplemental type certificate in 2003.
“We had some early adopters that immediately saw the great value in equipping their entire fleet for NVG use,” said Atwood. “Others took more time to convince because of the financial investment in the goggles and cockpit modifications. But, you cannot place a value on a life.”
As it was working with the FAA to get systems certified, ASU started its commercial business by selling goggles, then expanded to training pilots and operators on their use. It eventually became an in-house, one-stop shop for goggles, aircraft lighting systems and training, as well as maintenance of all three.
ASU employees travel to the customer to perform training on the NVG systems so they can fly in their own territory and own mission aircraft.
“We usually ask them to take us to the darkest place they fly and let them experience that with NVGs,” said Gordon.
Pilots can also visit ASU in Boise to receive extensive training in varied terrain, from desert to mountain, and in urban to rural settings.
As an early, first-to-market company, ASU has expanded into the European and African helicopter markets in recent years. Gordon said ASU is also focused on introducing NVGs to U.S. markets that could benefit from flying more safely at night or who do not fly after dark but could benefit from extending their operations.
The company is concentrating on expanding NVG use in aerial application operations, where flights often occur at night, when pesticides can be applied to avoid harming bees and other essential pollinators. Also, Gordon said aerial firefighting is more effective at night when temperatures plummet and winds are often calm.
“Night vision isn’t necessarily a reason to fly at night, but if you are already flying at night, it gives you the ability to fly safely,” she said. “Now, we’re really focused on developing the technology to figure out how we can do this better.”
To that end, ASU is poised in 2020 to launch the E3, a new lightweight NVG that is about half the weight of its existing goggles. The smaller set, when mounted to a pilot’s helmet, will reduce neck strain and overall fatigue, and increase a pilot’s operational longevity.
“We’re pushing into areas in which ASU can reimagine the possibility of the art,” said Gordon. “We really don’t have any limits on focus other than wanting to help improve operational safety in aviation.”
“When I reflect on the 25-year history of ASU, I cannot help but think about all the lives that have been saved and people that have been touched,” said Atwood. “Our brothers and sisters around the world fly every night, risking their lives to help others. We have to get NVGs to them to reduce unnecessary risks. Will there still be accidents? Yes. Will there still be mistakes? Yes. But we can help reduce unnecessary accidents. That is why we continue to try and make NVGs available–to keep people safe.
“NVGs have been proven to significantly advance safety when flying at night. I sure as hell would not fly without them.”