United States of America
Douglas Isleib, Director, Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement (NACRA)
With a small, hand-picked team, Doug Isleib launched NACRA in 2008 to focus resources on both emergent and longer-term needs of Navy and Marine Corps rotorcraft communities, and to partner with industry, academia, and other services to address those needs. “The thing that’s exciting to me about NACRA is our ability to innovate,” he says. “I spent my whole career as a rotorcraft guy, as has everybody on the team. The fact that we have the ability to influence the future is unique and exciting.”
NACRA recently received approval for a second UH-1N T-Rex – Testbed for Rapid Experimentation and Warfighter Support – to flight-test promising technologies.
“We’ve executed more projects than we said we would and brought in more money than we said we would,” explains Mr. Isleib. “Probably most important, we have a whole lineup of really exciting work within our focus areas – digital interoperability, safety/survivability, and cost reduction. We have much more work than we can do with one aircraft.”
As a Marine aviator, Mr. Isleib logged more than 4,100 flight hours, including time in the full range of Marine Corps rotorcraft. He was the first operational Marine pilot to fly the V-22 tilt rotor. However, growing up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, Doug Isleib had no special military or aviation interest. “Actually, the last career military person in my family graduated from West Point a century before I went to Annapolis.” He recalls, “I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to go into the military, or that I wanted to go to the Academy. I applied just as a matter of course along with other universities and colleges. Once I got accepted, it became a matter of, ‘Well, I got accepted; I guess I have to go.’”
Naval Academy studies led to a degree in mechanical engineering with no aeronautical concentration, but Annapolis also exposed the future aviator to different career paths. “First I had a couple of summer cruises at the Academy aboard LPDs (amphibious warfare ships). I spent most of my time seasick, so that convinced me I didn’t want to be a surface-line guy. Then on one of the summer cruises, we got to spend a couple of days aboard a submarine, and I felt pretty claustrophobic, so I knew I didn’t want to be a sub guy.
“Then we went to Quantico, and I had a blast. That was really my first inkling that the Marine Corps would be a lot of fun. The last stop in that summer cruise was down in Pensacola, and one flight in a helicopter was when I knew that was what I wanted to do – be a Marine helicopter pilot. It took me awhile to figure out, but that one flight and I was hooked.”
Flight school graduation in 1979 presented more choices. Mr. Isleib recalls, “You got to choose either where you wanted to go or what you wanted to fly. We flew T-34s and then TH-57s for Helicopter Basic, and then the advanced part of the syllabus was in Hueys. I had flown in them and loved them, so I chose Hueys and ended up going out to Camp Pendleton for my first tour.”
The new Marine aviator flew Bell UH-1Ns with all-Huey squadron HML-267 in California and later with composite Huey-Cobra squadrons HMLA-367 and -369 at Camp Pendleton and on Okinawa. “The Huey was exciting to me – it can do all the missions associated with assault support in the Marine Corps.” Squadron life also made a lasting impression. “The reason I think my first fleet tour was a great tour was that the role of a lieutenant and a captain in a Marine Corps squadron is to grow as a team member and grow as a pilot. Your job is to fly. Your job is to first become proficient in your aircraft and then in tactically employing your aircraft. There’s just nothing like being a part of a fleet Marine Corps squadron.”
The helicopter pilot nevertheless returned to Florida as an instructor in T-34s with fixed-wing Training Squadron Three. “I probably wouldn’t have picked that, but I loved that also,” acknowledges Mr. Isleib. “As an instructor, your primary job is flying. A 60- or 70-hour month is not uncommon, and the more you fly, the better you’re doing your job.” Doug Isleib was named VT-3 Instructor of the Year in 1987. “The ability to take a guy from his very first flight and watch him turn, in most cases, from someone who’s uncomfortable and scared in an airplane to someone who starts becoming a pilot is tremendously satisfying.”
Rotorcraft called again. Mr. Isleib observes, “There’s nothing like being in a helicopter in high-speed – high-speed in a helicopter is relative – low-level flight. Flying in and out of confined areas and pinnacles, helicopter flight has always been really exciting to me.” A competitive application earned an assignment to the Operational Test and Evaluation department at HMX-1 in Quantico, and the responsibility of flying Presidents. “Actually, my goal at HMX was not just the Executive mission. I went with the intent of being an Operational Test pilot on the V-22.”
The Presidential mission was prestigious and painstaking. “It’s very methodical and planned out,” observes Mr. Isleib. “You rehearse everything. You know where you’re going, and when you’re going to get there, and what you’re going to do when things change. The thing that was cool about that mission was the opportunity to be up-close and personal to the Presidents, Vice Presidents, heads of state and cabinet members, and to see them in unguarded moments. The VIPs I saw who I was most impressed with were President Reagan, President Bush and General Powell. They all came across as great men, and then you’d see them personally in their unguarded moments, and they truly were great leaders and great men.”
The special passengers showed their human sides aboard Marine One. “President Reagan would do something like kick the tires as if he were going to decide if he was going to buy the aircraft or not. President Bush would always make a point to come up and say hello to the pilot and co-pilot and ask something like, ‘Do you guys know where you’re going?’ They took for granted they were going to get where they needed to be on time, but they didn’t lose sight of the fact that people were providing a service for them.”
Doug Isleib flew both VH-3D and VH-60N Presidential helicopters. “It’s such a busy squadron, there’s so much going on when the President is traveling, that pretty much everybody flying has to be qualified in both aircraft.” HMX-1 also had VH-1s, CH-46s, and CH-53s. “That was one of the fun things about that squadron – all the type-model series you got to fly.” However, the would-be tilt-rotor operational tester got only one flight in the V-22. “I extended for a fifth year with HMX with the intent of taking the aircraft through [Operational Test period] OTIIA. As the program got delayed, we didn’t get to OTIIA, but the program manager provided me one flight evaluation. The thing that I still remember vividly is the acceleration that you feel when you take off and transition in that aircraft.”
A traditional post-HMX Good Deal sent the flying officer to a non-flying job in Okinawa. “Being a member of the staff of the 4th Marine Regiment and seeing that side of the Marine Corps did a lot for me,” Mr. Isleib recalls. A flying assignment with MAG-29 at New River returned him to a Huey cockpit.
In 1998, the fleet aviator reported to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) as a Deputy Program Manager for the MV-22 Osprey. “There were still technical issues as we tried to find out how to fly and employ this really revolutionary tiltrotor. There was still a political battle. One of my jobs in the program as a Marine Lieutenant Colonel was to be able to talk about why the Marine Corps needed the V-22; what it was going to do for us; and how it was going to be employed in the future.” The tilt rotor ultimately overcame technical and political obstacles. “The Marine Corps was, like the Marine Corps always is, unwavering on the V-22 program from the Commandant on down. We knew that that was the right aircraft for the Marine Corps mission. I think that was one of the keys to the program surviving – the Marine Corps’ laser-like focus on it.”
As program manager for the fixed-wing KC-130, Lt. Col. Isleib gained greater system acquisition perspective. “That was my first experience managing an acquisition team, and it was a great experience. I came to have an enormous respect and admiration for the C-130 community.” Though the Defense Acquisition University provided a foundation, Mr. Isleib notes, “Largely, acquisition training is on-the-job training. I’m still learning acquisition 13 years later.”
The AH-1Z/UH-1Y Upgrade with hydraulic, structural and sensor-integration issues provided more challenges for an aviator-turned-acquisition manager. “On the H-1 program, we had just started integrated flight test with Bell, so we had the kind of technical problems I guess you expect – nothing earth-shattering, but it all seems earth-shattering when it’s happening. Like the V-22, there were plenty of politics involved and having to explain time and time again why the H-1 was the right answer for the Marine Corps. It’s proving that it is now.”
Colonel Isleib retired in 2005 after 28 years in the Marine Corps to head the contentious Presidential Replacement Helicopter program as a civil servant. The VH-71 cancellation in 2009 drives NAVAIR acquisition reforms today. “The big lesson to me on that program was understanding the requirements between government and industry before going on contract,” says Doug Isleib. “I don’t think requirements substantially changed. We did have to do a lot of work, post award, to understand the requirements.”
NACRA was meanwhile formed at Patuxent River by Congressional direction to communicate technical solutions to common problems across “stove-piped” Naval rotorcraft communities. It began by roadmapping current programs. “That’s a great tool I think, both for disciplined planning in the program offices and for the ability to compare across program boundaries to look for opportunities to leverage efforts and take advantage of what other programs are doing.”
NACRA acquired the UH-1N T-Rex to give the Navy a dedicated maritime testbed helicopter. “There are all kinds of things that look good on paper, that look good on PowerPoint,” notes Mr. Isleib. “The testbed gives us an opportunity to put them in practice and see if they really work or not.”
T-Rex first flew tests of a Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) collision avoidance system in the summer of 2010 and followed up with a COTS terrain avoidance aid. Upcoming experiments will network T-Rex in Joint exercises. “This is something we don’t have in our helicopters right now.” says Mr. Isleib. “It’s critically important to pass voice, digital imagery, video over the net, in real-time between multiple agencies.”
Future experiments apply fiber optics to reduce systems weight and improve reliability. “That doesn’t sound new and amazing, because fiber optics are all over the place, but they’re not in our aircraft today, and for the most part not being planned into the aircraft that we’re building.” Mr. Isleib explains, “One of the fiber optics projects will be in conjunction with Aviation Survivability Equipment. That will be a key enabler – the long cable runs required to get to the sensors and various pieces of equipment can be done far more effectively with fiber than copper.”
NACRA is also looking at Condition-Based Maintenance solutions to cut Total Ownership Costs. “We want to find a way to leverage Condition-Based Maintenance across programs, across industry and with the Army,” says Mr. Isleib.
The NACRA director observes, “We’re fielding new platforms across every one of our communities. It would be easy to relax a little bit thinking about the future because we’re so excited about the platforms we’re flying today.
“One of the missions we have is strategic planning – to look to the future. The threat is going to continue to evolve. The missions are going to continue to evolve. In 20 years, these aircraft that are capable and exciting right now are going to seem old, and we’re going to be looking for replacements. We have to do that planning now. We know that the future is not a linear extension of the present. We know that things are going to change, and if we’re not investing in key technologies and planning the programs now, the next generation of warfighters are going to pay for it.”
Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Summer 2011