From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite January/February 2022
Patrick Collins, Senior Fellow, Helicopter Operating Center, Defence Equipment & Support, UK Ministry of Defence (MoD)
Pat Collins helped launch NATO’s Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project after a varied career in engineering. He explained, “My current role in NGRC is technical advisor to the leadership of the specialist group, which has representatives from the seven nations that are expected to take this forward via an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] next year.” The MOU will undertake the concept stage of a common replacement for more than 900 medium-class multi-role helicopters that will reach the end of their service lives between 2035 and 2045 (see “47th ERF Is a Virtual Success!” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2021). Collins summarized, “We know what we’ve got currently. We’d like a replacement to fulfill similar roles but with greatly increased serviceability in a truly multi-role platform, with improved performance and at significantly less cost to procure and operate.
“The specialist group has a small leadership team,” noted Collins. “Our chair is from the UK Army with two officers supporting him. Our vice-chair is from the Italian Ministry of Defense, and I’m the technical advisor.” Requirements for the notional Puma/Merlin/Hip/Black Hawk/NH90 replacement are evolving. “One of them is a target 220-kt [407-km/h] cruise speed. We recognize that if we set a high cruise speed, the only solutions that are going to meet that are something other than a conventional rotorcraft — a compound or a tiltrotor — and they bring with them various constraints in other areas. We have therefore set a threshold speed requirement of 180 kt [333 km/h] which, although challenging, could be met with a conventional design. We’ve got a very severe cost requirement — purchase costs and operating costs are both very challenging. We’ve also got a high availability target, and we want it to be easily maintainable.”
Collins offered, “One of the drivers is to adopt a MOSA [Modular Open Systems Approach] for mission systems and the defensive aids suite [DAS] — aircraft survivability equipment [ASE] in US parlance. We recognize that most nations have sovereign requirements as far as DAS/ASE. The architecture that allows that to be integrated on the platform rapidly and then updated reactively to new threats is a key attribute.”
For much of his career, Collins focused on systems vulnerability and survivability. “Survivability has to be built in from the start; this precludes a dual-use platform. If you’re going to have an aircraft which has ballistically tolerant, duplicated and separated components, that is going to lead to additional mass and complexity which civil operators don’t need and add to cost. I think it needs to be a military platform from the outset.”
Pat Collins grew up in Ratcliffe-on-Soar south of Nottingham. His father, Harry Collins, was head of chemistry research at a large steelworks. “He wasn’t an engineer, but he had an interest in airplanes from childhood. My parents used to take me to Battle of Britain days at RAF Gaydon, which was a V-bomber base in the early 1960s.” (The Valiant, Vulcan and Victor aircraft were the UK strategic bombers of the 1950–60s.)
Loughborough University was one of several schools offering aeronautical engineering studies. “Loughborough was close to where my parents lived. Their four-year degree course offered the opportunity to gain hands-on engineering skills alongside the academic content. You also undertook a 20-week placement in industry ahead of your final year.”
The Aircraft Research Association (ARA) in Bedford gave the student engineer work as a research assistant analyzing transonic wind tunnel data. Collins observed, “Few university courses had much rotary-wing content at that time, although I am aware that Westland had close links to the University of Southampton.” Westland Helicopters was busy producing Pumas, Gazelles, Sea Kings and Lynx when Collins applied for his first aerospace engineering job. “To be honest, I was keen on helicopters, and Westland were offering a great starting salary in a very pleasant part of the UK. They were having a big recruitment campaign at the time relating to the Sea King Replacement program that eventually became the WG.34. When we teamed with Agusta, it became the EH101” (now the AW101).
The helicopter maker started Collins through its development graduate scheme. “The development department covered structural and mechanical test, vibration test, flight test, instrumentation and ‘type test.’ I started as a structural test engineer. Within six months you’d go on rotation for about two years, going around to all the other departments to get a flavor of what they did.”
“There was also the option to spend four months in a totally unrelated department, which for me would be significant. After my six months in structural test, I went to the fledgling survivability department. That really appealed to me, and clearly the feeling was mutual as at the end of my short placement, I was asked to stay and did so until I left the company in ‘86.”
Lacking new programs, the Westland survivability department downsized over the following years. Collins found intriguing work in South Africa. “In 1986, there was an advert in Flight International from a consultancy, recruiting helicopter survivability engineers to work for an unnamed company in an undisclosed country. The salary they were offering was significantly more than any of us were earning at Westland. We all applied for the same job.”
A telephone interview led to a move to Atlas Aircraft in Johannesburg and a job on the Rooivalk attack helicopter. Collins recalled, “Rooivalk was a really interesting program to work on. South Africa was engaged in a protracted conflict with Communist-backed forces in Angola and neighboring countries. They needed an escort helicopter, but they couldn’t buy one on the open market, so they developed their own. When I got there in August of ‘86, I saw a few drawings, but the design was at an early stage. There was a mockup of the avionics bays; that was all they had. When I left in February 1990, I’d seen the prototype flying. It was just incredible, the speed in turnaround development. Keep in mind they were developing another helicopter at the same time, the Oryx, which was an updated version of the Puma.”
South Africa underwent massive changes in 1990, and Collins recalled. “It was quite a scary place to live at times. My wife and I decided that it was time for us to return to the UK with our then-young family.” Collins applied for a range of jobs. “To get a security clearance in any defense-related industry was going to be challenging.” In September 1990, an ad called for composite engineers in motorsports. “When I spoke to them it was very clear that they were interested in hiring someone with chartered engineer status and recent aerospace experience. The fact that I had considerable experience of working with aramid and carbon fiber was a really good mark for me.”
Collins became Project Engineer on the Jaguar XJR-12 Le Mans racecars built by Advanced Structural Technology, part of Tom Walkinshaw Racing. He recalled, “Weight saving was critical. The trick was to reduce weight as much as possible and then ballast up to the minimum allowed in order to position the center of gravity. The chassis was made from carbon fiber prepreg and aluminum honeycomb. Carbon-Kevlar hybrid material was used in the floor to provide a degree of damage tolerance from debris hitting the underside. The bodywork was generally Kevlar and honeycomb. At the time, it was very high-tech and required race teams to be very well-funded.”
When the Rooivalk made a marketing visit to the UK Army helicopter show at Middle Wallop in 1994, Collins went to see the helicopter and renew acquaintances. “A lot of the work I’d done at Westland was under contract to the Royal Aircraft Establishment [RAE] at Farnborough. I met a number of old colleagues and talked to them about potentially getting a job in the MoD.” An interview earned a job offer. “They were particularly interested in my survivability and vulnerability experience. When I was at Westland, I’d done a lot of work for RAE on developing damage algorithms for rotorcraft components versus specific projectiles. That related to development of computerized vulnerability assessment tools which were then in use.”
Collins brought his on-the-job experience and commercial perspective to the government lab. “There was enthusiasm to exploit laboratory expertise commercially. We had very close collaboration with our government counterparts in the US, Australia and Canada through The Technical Cooperation Program [TTCP] and with multiple European nations, but aimed to expand engagement with industry.” Within a few years, Collins assumed leadership of the section that had sponsored the research he had been working on at the start of his career at Westland.
The MoD Defence Evaluation and Research Agency split into two new organizations in 2001: the commercial company QinetiQ and the government agency Dstl (Defense Science & Technology Laboratory). The war on terror renewed interest in helicopter survivability. “We were very conscious of the threats from small-caliber weapons. Ballistic tolerance to bullets and gun-fired projectiles was a big deal back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It has changed since then. When we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were largely up against adversaries armed with machine guns, RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and MANPADS [man-portable air defense systems]. Once you move out from that kind of theater to a more advanced one, sophisticated air defense systems become the primary threat.”
Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability
In 2008, Collins appeared as an expert witness at an official inquest into the shooting down of a C-130 Hercules aircraft in Iraq with the loss of all 10 personnel on board; the outcome had a significant impact on the survivability of future UK aircraft. “About three years later, I was seconded to DE&S [Defense Equipment and Support], the UK MoD’s procurement and support agency in Bristol, Southwest England, as scientific advisor to the two-star director of the Helicopters Operating Centre. It was our way of getting science and technology into the procurement process and proved to be highly successful.”
Collins established a NATO Science and Technology Organization (STO) activity to look at “Future Rotorcraft Requirements,” which led to a conference in 2015 with strong support from several organizations: ONERA (France), DLR (Germany), NLR (Netherlands), Dstl (UK) and the US Army (see “US Army Working with NATO on DVE and Next Gen Rotorcraft,” Vertiflite, May/June 2017). This led NATO’s Joint Capability Group Vertical Lift to establish the Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) Team of Experts. Collins explained, “This informed NATO on what the Next Generation Rotorcraft could be. Five partner nations [France, Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK] signed a letter of intent in 2020 to undertake the pre-concept phase, with the UK agreeing to lead that phase of the programme. We are now working on the MOU to cover the next stage of development. NSPA [NATO Support & Procurement Agency] have been selected as delivery agent for the [3-year] concept stage.”
NGRC requirements are in development, but compared to today’s helicopters, Collins noted, “The NGRC has to be at least as survivable as the platforms it will replace against an ever-evolving threat.” He added, “One of the things I feel quite strongly about is armor. If you design the platform correctly, you can limit the armor you need to just around the occupants. Most systems on the platform should be designed to be survivable without any added protection being required.”
Collins joined the Royal Aeronautical Society in the late 1970s and became a fellow of the society in 2002; he has been a member of its Rotorcraft Group since 2018. Collins joined VFS (then the American Helicopter Society) with his return to rotorcraft in 2011. “I believe that the two societies complement each other well. When I came back into the fold, I had to re-visit a lot of what I’d done previously. I identified the AHS annual Forum as a really good way of getting a lot of information quickly; the program manager briefings being particularly informative. I find the developments in UAM [urban air mobility] truly inspiring. With programs like FVL [Future Vertical Lift], NGRC and UAM, the future looks rich with opportunities for the next generation of rotorcraft engineers.”