Chris Van Buiten
United States of America
Chris Van Buiten - Vice President, Technology and Innovation Research and Engineering, Sikorsky Aircraft
As the head of Sikorsky Innovations, Chris Van Buiten leads an agile engineering and rapid prototyping team that cultivates new rotorcraft technologies, products, and development processes. The highest-profile outcome so far has been the high-speed X2 Technology demonstrator that received the Collier Award last May. “There is great value to actually building something,” observes Mr. Van Buiten. “There were some pretty vocal, respected people in the industry who said that X2 would not work. There were people running their Computational Fluid Dynamics who said vibrations would be excessive; the prop efficiency would be too low. There was a whole myriad of reasons to show it was too hard. But the value of actually doing is you break through that chatter pretty quickly.”
Innovations were formally launched in 2010, and according to Mr. Van Buiten, “It’s exceeded our expectations, and the expectations of the senior leadership of Sikorsky.” The X2 success provided the basis of the Sikorsky S-97 Raider armed helicopter demonstrator, now an Innovations development program. “That’s one of the neat things in our growth -- which we’ve earned the right to take on projects of that magnitude now.” The X2 also inspired other rotorcraft demonstrators in US and foreign industry and in the US Department of Defense (DoD). “There was a lot of discussion a few years ago that our industry was fundamentally broken. Someone back then used the expression, literally, ‘a cartel of incompetence.’ I haven’t heard any of that in the last two years. We have really opened the aperture as far as what’s possible for the DoD. There’s more value in that than what we perceived at first.”
The Innovations chief explains, “A huge thrust for us now is to clarify what Joint Multi Role/Future Vertical Lift [JMR/FVL] is and to prepare to give the government a fantastic proposal for the upcoming demonstrator program. I think the Army has a fabulous roadmap for the emerging technologies and the perfect concept for building some JMR demonstrators. We’re really excited about that as the next step.”
Excited early-on by helicopters, Chris Van Buiten grew up in Columbia, Maryland. His father was a Martin Company aerospace engineer who served as program manager on the Gemini-Titan launch vehicle. “My father was a dyed-in-the-wool Space Guy,” recalls the helicopter engineer. “He absolutely believed technology was proportional to speed.” Popular culture nevertheless gave the junior Van Buiten a different view. “I grew up in the Airwolf/Blue Thunder TV-show era, and I was just enamored with helicopters since I was a little kid.” He adds, “In the intervening years, my father’s really come around. He’s come to appreciate the technology they require.”
Helicopters also drove the young Van Buiten’s education. “I was looking for an aerospace curriculum and one that had some rotorcraft focus.” A Glenn L. Martin scholarship settled his choice on University of Maryland. “It was a state school, one of the Rotorcraft Centers, and a scholarship. It was perfect, and I loved it.”
The Rotorcraft Center of Excellence provided a unique helicopter foundation, observes Mr. Van Buiten. “As an undergrad, you had to do some horse-trading to take the graduate classes, which is where the helicopter stuff really started. I was able to take Al Gessow’s introduction to helicopter aerodynamics as an undergrad which was a joy. He’s a real pioneer in our industry.”
Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace in 1989, Chris Van Buiten set his professional sights on Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut. “I knew when I was a little kid I was going straight to Sikorsky. Call it a disease or whatever – not only was it helicopters, but I liked big helicopters. I did interview with each of the manufacturers, but from the beginning I had kind of a thing for Sikorsky.”
A spot in the Sikorsky Preliminary Design (PD) group started the novice engineer on operational analyses for an Advanced Cargo Aircraft to replace the Boeing CH-47 and Sikorsky’s own CH-53E. More aircraft trade studies followed. Chris Van Buiten recalls, “One of my absolute favorite early jobs was making two full-scale mockups of the S-92 -- the green military version and the white commercial. That was so much fun -- the mechanics of building the mockups but more importantly working with customers on their requirements and what they liked and what they didn’t like.”
Mr. Van Buiten spent two years in S-92 detail design. The Collier-winning helicopter notably advanced Computer-Aided Design and global partnerships. “It was the first time we used CATIA tools to do international design cooperation with five partners around the world. I started taking lessons in Russian because we thought we were going to get them to participate. I ended up spending more time in Japan.”
A return to Preliminary Design (PD) turned Chris Van Buiten to new derivatives of production aircraft. “Whatever’s got a current number, we were working on it when it was an X. We had a CH-53X that became the -53K. We had a UH-60X-1, -60X-2, and -60X-3. One of those became the UH-60M.”
User requirements continued to give Mr. Van Buiten food for thought. “I had a lot of fun in the early days of the M definition, going through those trades. He adds, “That’s been a super-satisfying part of the job. It can be frustrating, but also very satisfying.” The PD group married the Black Hawk and Seahawk in the Navy MH-60S, and it launched the Army UH-60Q Medevac Black Hawk. “That was a fun job, and a fun lesson, notes Mr. Van Buiten. “A Colonel in the Army kept, appropriately, looking at the CATIA drawings and saying, ‘I don’t think that’ll work. You can’t provide enough care to the patient in the upper litter position.’
“We were convinced that it would work. It was just that the picture couldn’t tell the story. So we made over a weekend a plywood mockup of a Black Hawk cabin, got some litters, and built this layout in the engineering department.” Mr. Van Buiten recalls, “The Colonel comes in, looks at the drawings in another room, and says, ‘I told you guys this isn’t going to work.’ We walk around the corner where he sees the mockup. He gets all excited and jumps down on a litter and says, “Put me in that position like a real patient.’ We picked him up on a stretcher and lowered him into our plywood/foam-core mockup of this Black Hawk cabin.” The mockup evolved into today’s HH-60M. “It was absolutely in the spirit of what Sikorsky does. I’m really happy to see it saving lives in the current conflicts.”
A tour with PZL Mielec led to S-70i Black Hawk production in Poland. Mr. Van Buiten explains, “I was there to lead the team to buy the company, so that was a year-and-a-half stint of business stuff instead of technical stuff. The Mielec engineers were extremely capable and very interested in expanding their skill set and learning more about rotorcraft. It was fun to see that their Skytruck was built a lot like a Black Hawk.”
On his return to Stratford, Chris Van Buiten helped start Innovations. “I had done this stint as a tech fellow – some of it spent in Poland – and then came back to what was called Advanced Programs. The Preliminary Design function was in there, but it was growing to be more and more technology development. Right around this time, the X2 was starting with Steve Weiner, Dave Walsh, and Kevin Bredenbeck.
“We got the X2 started, and we all saw the opportunity to tell the story in a different way and combine the pieces in a new way,” explains Mr. Van Buiten. “That was the concept behind Sikorsky Innovations -- to get together a gang of people that focuses on the next-generation technology, demonstrating differentiating technology. It would help us tell our story. It would help us attract talent. It would excite the talent that we had. It would help us focus and get internal investment and help us win external investment.”
Innovations were launched formally in 2010 and remain lean and agile. “It’s small teams,” notes Mr. Van Buiten. “The prototype development process we use is modified from the standard I’m-going-to-make-2,000-helicopters process or even from the I’m-going-to-certify or military-qualify process. We have it hard in that what we do probably hasn’t been done before, but we don’t have the process complexity that goes with certification or qualification.
“Everyone’s in a dragster when it comes to designing, decision-making, and prototyping. But we all have to jump into a Volvo when it comes to safety and making sure no one gets hurt. Every so often, that leads to painful but really clear decisions. Our electric helicopter last year just wasn’t ready for prime time. We could have done a flight, but it would have been a stunt. It arguably wouldn’t have been safe enough, so we said, ‘Let’s hold off.’”
Innovations have just 50 full-time staff. Individual projects can involve as many as 300 Sikorsky people plus corporate and university partners. “People rotate in and out,” explains Mr. Van Buiten. “They might work on an Innovations project for six months, fly it, and go back on to -60M or Seahawk or -53K. Some people you just can’t pull away from this kind of stuff. Some stay around and just love the kind of abuse we go through.”
When Innovations sponsored a prize for human-powered helicopter flight, its chief received a surprising complaint from his former University of Maryland professor, Inderjit Chopra. Grades of some of the best students working on the competition had started to fall. “I said, ‘Dr. Chopra, that is such a tragedy. Could you please give me the names of the some of the A students who are now getting BS because you can’t pull them away from building a human-powered helicopter? That’s exactly the kind of people I want.’”
Innovations engineers refined the use of Virtual Reality (VR) tools where CATIA data feeds helmet displays to model designs in 3D. VR first modeled the Presidential cabin of Sikorsky’s proposed VH-92. “We learned that it gives an unfortunate, artificially small feel to a space. Trying those kinds of tools is part of our job. Now the CH-53K has demonstrated a lot of savings by using those tools in the development process.”
Real X2 hardware meanwhile provided welcome surprises. According to Mr. Van Buiten, “One fun example was that the propeller efficiency – and I don’t think this was in anyone’s prediction – was higher installed and in forward flight than the uninstalled performance. Where some were saying there was a potentially large negative effect, there was actually a positive effect. You get those things only by building it. I guarantee the change in perceptions would not be possible with viewgraphs.”
Innovations now focus its efforts on rotorcraft speed, autonomy, and the aware-and-adaptive helicopter. “I think the X2 could just fundamentally change rotorcraft,” says Mr. Van Buiten. “As we’re laying out Joint Multi-Role options, the in-flight refueling envelope of a helicopter and the tanker today barely intersect. An X2 could in-flight refuel at 200 kt and 20,000 ft, so every X2 could have a refueling probe just like a fighter, and in-flight refueling would be a routine thing that helicopters do.”
Chris Van Buiten observes, “A traditional helicopter is almost like a mechanical typewriter. You press one key, and the arm swings up and you get one letter on the piece of paper. That’s almost the level of a lot of the helicopters out there in the fleet.” The aware-and-adaptive helicopter promises to change with missions and operating environments. “We’re trying to get something that’s as adaptable and intelligent as an iPAD where the software and its capabilities can rapidly change.
“We just did a really neat test of automatic formation flight where one Black Hawk follows another. We want to drop that algorithm into a future helicopter very quickly, sell the app to that – the software and a new sensor up front – and add that capability to a helicopter. Our autonomy program also just came up with some search algorithms which can be rolled into Search and Rescue.
Innovations’ autonomy thrust also has safety implications. “To me, solving or eliminating Controlled Flight Into Terrain while at the same time allowing all our products to fly with two pilots, one pilot, or none, has incredible value. It would eliminate the leading cause of fatalities in helicopters, and greatly expand their utilization.”
Mr. Van Buiten adds, “The other thing we absolutely have to get our heads around is attacking life-cycle costs. Helicopters are still expensive to operate. The whole diagnostic and prognostics technology and really using that data to make the maintenance decision is again part of our aware-and-adaptive thrust.”
Innovations has meanwhile issued an Entrepreneurial Challenge to small companies who can answer rotorcraft-related questions in wireless sensing, adaptive signature control, certifiable software applications, energy storage, and avionics cooling. Mr. Van Buiten explains, “The Challenge questions were defined to find things that were relevant to us but could also have wide commercial relevance.”
Leadership Profile: Vertiflite May/June 2012