Steven W. Kihara

United States of America


From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Winter 2008

Colonel Steven W. Kihara, Commander, US Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate

The Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) at Fort Eustis, Virginia, develops, demonstrates, and applies critical technologies to enhance, sustain, and enable the US Army rotary- and fixed-wing fleet. Colonel Steven Kihara commands the busy Science and Technology organization that also meets urgent aviation needs in the Global War On Terror. He explains, “The basic mission of the organization hasn’t changed. . . . What we have seen is the requirement for the short-suspense, immediate-need capabilities go absolutely through the roof.” AATD expedited manned-unmanned teaming technology and other new capabilities to combat users through an accelerated engineering, test and fielding process. Col. Kihara observes, “When you’ve got American soldiers in harm’s way, they don’t need a pretty hammer. They need a hammer, and they need it now. ”

Col. Kihara is a Master Army Aviator and an Experimental Test Pilot with over 4,000 hours in more than 60 different aircraft. He was the first Army officer to command the US Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS). However, growing up in Spokane, Washington near Fairchild Air Force Base, Steve Kihara had little more than a passing interest in aviation or the military. “At that age, I was more concerned with where I was going to get the next tire for my motorcycle or where I was going to get the next gallon of gas.” With high school graduation approaching, the student-athlete started a search for college money, and a guidance counselor recommended he apply for Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC scholarships. “Ask me as a 17-year old kid what I really wanted to do, and I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know what the Army or the Navy was about.”

Steve Kihara enrolled in the small Army ROTC detachment at Gonzaga University in Spokane and considered a career in dentistry that forced him to choose either chemistry or biology as a major. “I enjoyed chemistry in high school. I ended up getting all the math and the physics really by happenstance.” Second Lieutenant Kihara was one of just eight ROTC officers commissioned at Gonzaga in 1984. “I asked if there was any way to fly, and the Major said, ‘yeah, you get a cape and put an S on your chest because in the Army we’re not big flyers. ‘“

The newly-commissioned officer filed requests for infantry, artillery, and Explosive Ordinance Disposal schools. The Army was nevertheless then beginning to grow its Aviation Branch, and part- way through the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, orders came for flight school. “I never left flying assignments,” notes Col. Kihara. “I started flying in October 1984, and I’ve only had one year when I did not fly, and that was my time at Fort Leavenworth for Command and General Staff College.”

From flight school at Fort Rucker, the new aviator went to Fort Lewis, Washington to fly OH-58 Kiowa scouts with A Company, 214th Attack Helicopter Battalion. He moved in advance of the unit to Fort Polk, Louisiana and stayed in scouts while other pilots rotated in and out of the AH-1F Cobra. “Not a lot of people wanted to hang out flying the unsexy Kiowa,” observes Col. Kihara. “You end up making your own niche, learning the job and doing it well. I spent the first ten years of my career below battalion level, always as a commander, an operational pilot, instructor pilot or unit trainer. . . . I’d work my staff job during the day and fly for the various companies or the Cav Squadron at night. I was able to stay in the cockpit the whole time.”

When the US Army’s first astronaut, Col. Woody Spring, spoke at Fort Polk, he urged then-Captain Kihara to apply for the United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS). The first application was unsuccessful, but the Army Aviation Center came looking for Instructor Pilots. Captain Kihara taught basic combat skills and observers courses in the OH-58 at Fort Rucker from 1988 to 1992 and then moved on to fly scouts in Korea. All the while, test flying remained appealing. “I ended up applying for the USNTPS seven times . . . . I think they got tired of me and said, ‘If this guy is going to apply this many times, maybe we’ll give him a chance.” A pre-TPS course at Edwards Air Force Base led to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in December 1993.

The USNTPS pooled fixed and rotary wing test-pilots-under-instruction from the US Navy, Army, and Air Force, with Dutch and Spanish pilots and American and British Instructors. “The first thing that struck me is that everyone operates differently,” recalls Col. Kihara. “But we were all getting to the same result regardless of the processes we’d go through with regard to the mechanics of flying. . . . When we asked, ‘What do you see as the risks to this flight’ – the risk management – we had the same answers.” The school also demanded a change in perspective, adds Col. Kihara. “It really was transformational in how you view things. . . . It goes into the why, because ultimately it’s a risk management-type system. You’ve got to know why that risk exists in order to mitigate that risk.”

The USNTPS curriculum included time in the TH-6B, UH-60A, SH-60B, and SH-3 helicopters; F-16, F/A-18, T-38, and T-2 jets; piston-engined Otters, Beavers, and gyrocopters; and gliders. “That breadth of knowledge was absolutely key,” notes Col. Kihara. “What I learned was time management, time management, time management, and how to determine when good enough is actually good enough.” He found help in a knowledgeable engineer-author. “Ray Prouty is just a brilliant guy. He wrote a big textbook that’s very thick and very hard to read. However, we had his helicopter aerodynamics articles from Rotor & Wing. That’s how I went through that course. I’d read those one-pagers the night before, and that gave me a framework. The next day in that class, the instructors would help put the hard engineering in that framework.”

As a TPS graduate, Steve Kihara became the last U.S military officer to report to the now-defunct Airworthiness Qualification Test Directorate at Edwards where he flew chase Hueys and T-34s for the Apache, MH-60K, and MH-47E test program, and did test work on OH-58D(I) and the AH/MH-6 Mission Enhanced Little Bird. He observes, “A lot of folks have a misconception about being a test pilot. It has nothing to do with your hands. It’s that thought process – the risk-mitigation piece – that you bring to the table. You’re the translator mechanism between the engineers and the pilots.“

An assignment to the Army Aviation Technical Test Center at Fort Rucker morphed into a busy flight test tour at the Bell plant in Arlington, Texas, integrating the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior with the Series 250-C30R/3 engine and Improved Master Control Processing Unit (IMCPU). Col. Kihara says, “I learned a whole lot about software-hardware integration, engine testing, weapons firing, you name it, and lots of it.” Kiowa Warrior tests required autorotations at high gross weights and expanded the lateral center of gravity for weapons. IMCPU integration supported Army digitization experiments with Task Force XXI.

A masters degree from Fort Leavenworth was followed by a UK exchange tour at Boscombe Down in July 1999 flying with British, Dutch, Swiss, German, and French test pilots. “It’s a very small community when you talk about building and testing airplanes,” says Col. Kihara. “At that level, it’s beyond the politics, the financiers and the selling of things.” The American exchange officer told his British commander, “I’ll fly all the stuff no one else wants to fly, “ and logged test time in Sea Kings, Chinooks, Lynx, Gazelles, and Merlins. The Boscombe Down test fleet included a Sea King built from spare parts and misshapen with the massive Merlin search radar. Col. Kihara recalls, “Everyone else hated to fly it. It grew into a love affair with it because it was such an ugly beast.” The tour also included handling qualities and sensor fusion work in the Royal Aircraft Establishment facilities at Farnborough and Bedford. The US Army exchange pilot flew Shipboard Handling and Operating Limits trials in a British Sea King on a Dutch ship. He notes, “In the other countries, everything is combined. They are Joint out of necessity. . . . Necessity drives efficiency.”

Col. Kihara returned to the US to become chief of flight test at AATD 2001. With the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, he helped meet the immediate needs of combat aviators. The AATD Rapid Prototyping Division developed Hellfire launcher modifications that protected Apaches and Kiowa Warriors from missile debris. The Systems Integration Division began work on the Rotorcraft Pilot’s Associate and Manned-Unmanned (MUM) teaming concepts that now enable Apaches to exploit Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs).

Col. Kihara left AATD to become executive officer and then commanding officer of the US Naval Test Pilot School in 2003. As a former student, he knew how the intense course tested the stress-performance curve of pilots. “It forced you into pretty disciplined thought processes, “he says. As USNTPS commander, Col. Kihara told incoming students, “Your great hands are not what got you here. You’re a good officer, a smart guy, and you look like you’re trainable.”

As AATD Commander in 2006, Col. Kihara returned to Fort Eustis and oversaw weapons systems modifications and the integration of command and control consoles, SATCOM radios, and other pieces of aviation digitization. AATD advanced Manned-Unmanned teaming from the Hunter Standoff Killer Team demonstration to the Video UAS Intelligence Teaming (VUIT-2), which became operational in Iraq in just 24 months. Col. Kihara says, “I think that’s a huge success story – that when the nation puts its mind to a task, we can do that.”

Over the last six years, AATD teams have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and elsewhere to field needed capabilities. Though the Global War On Terror has added demands, the Directorate continues to do its mission without many more people. “Overall numbers haven’t changed much. The types of people have changed a bit,” says Col. Kihara. “You don’t need a hundred guys. You need ten of the right guys.”

AATD has added civilian strength in its manufacturing shops and documentation branch, and it has received more essential Non-Commissioned Officers. With university intern programs and other recruiting efforts, the Directorate has seen the average age of engineers fall in recent years from just over 50 years old to just over 40. Training talented engineers in Army acquisition rules and helicopter missions nevertheless takes three to five years. Col. Kihara acknowledges, “The one piece that is even more difficult is to get them to think in a military mindset. . . . Our workforce has to think like our customers – soldiers – and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

AATD works to fill capability gaps identified by Army leadership. According to Col. Kihara, “We’re doing the right things, but we don’t have the funding to fill all the capability gaps. We have to do it deliberately as an Army because developing future capability is not only determining what will or won’t work but also how does the Army balance capability development against funding—it is risk-management of potential capability, requirements, technological and budget risk in the outyears.”

As a former OH-58 pilot, some needs are obvious. “Power, power, power. You can never have enough power,” says Col. Kihara. “Power buys me payload, and payload buys me weapons, fuel, time-on-station, anything else I need.” Other technologies, such as MUM teaming, have more subtle implications. The Army has successfully supplied deployed units with enough spare parts to fly aircraft at four or more times their peacetime operating tempos. “We now have supply and materiel solutions that can outpace how the formations are manned. One of the ways forward is if you un-man that aircraft, or if you can make it optionally manned, you can decrease the burden on the soldiers and have the aircraft do the simpler missions for a longer duration. “ MUM opens other possibilities and challenges for Army planners. “It is a paradigm shift in how we think. Twenty years ago, the scout pilot was the human marking round. Now we have UASs out there providing that capability while keeping the soldier out of harm’s way. We have to develop the autonomy piece so the UAS is self-aware enough to accept mission-level taskings.”

“The hardest question to answer is how do commanders turn data into situational understanding,” says Col. Kihara. “We have the technology and the computing power now, but data is just data. It means nothing. That’s going to be the transformational piece, to be able to merge the science of the data with the art that the soldier or the seasoned commander brings to it.”