Geoffrey R. Downer

United States of America


From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite January/February 2023

Geoffrey R. Downer, Director of Special Programs (Aviation), US Army Aviation and Missile Command

Leading about 175 civilian, contractor and military specialists at Fort Eustis, Virginia, Geoffrey Downer oversees aviation developments for both the US Army Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the broader Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM). He explained, “As AMCOM Director, Special Programs, I’m responsible for developing new technologies for the Army and SOCOM, whether classified or unclassified. As Program Executive Officer [PEO] Rotary Wing, I’m responsible for the rotary-wing portfolio from an acquisition standpoint for SOCOM. Our predominant customer is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.”

Risky, high-value operations give the Night Stalkers of the 160th heavily modified MH-60M Black Hawks and MH-47G Chinooks and unique AH/MH-6 Little Birds, all continuously updated to navigate contested airspace at night and in adverse weather. Compared to regular Army aviation, Downer noted, “We have a much faster requirements process. Within the 160th, they define the requirements and staff it through the Special Operations Command Requirements Evaluation Board process at SOCOM headquarters for major programs which we then execute. The 160th Commander at Fort Campbell also has authority to define requirements and sign off on smaller modifications.”

Big changes become block modifications. “We are never done with our block mods,” said Downer. “They’re based on demand from the operators. We’ll start a block mod process, for example, for the MH-60M aircraft. It’s about a five- or six-year process to run all 72 aircraft through a single block mod. But as we’re developing capabilities like the degraded visual environment pilotage system [DVEPS], they are injected into the block mod process. The last aircraft that comes off the line is not the same as the first one. We’ll run those first few aircraft back through to get the fleet as common as we can before we start the next block mod.”

Downer’s team is largely self-contained. “The major effort that we have going on at this campus is we do all the acquisition. l use other organizations to provide flight test support. I have program managers [PMs] — that are broken into different program offices. By having contracting, legal, and budgeting all located within this site, I can realign our priorities and focus in on the most important tasks.”

Downer coordinates priorities with the Army's Aviation General Officer Steering Committee, the “Six-Pack” including the PEO Aviation and the Director of the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Cross-Functional Team developing the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). “We have our SOCOM-unique requirements — shipboard operations, air transportability. We have special mission equipment — unique aircraft survivability equipment, unique sensors, air refueling. On the FARA program, we have a requirement to carry troops; the Army does not. We will receive both FLRAA and FARA, but we still want to have that streetfighter capability with our Little Birds. We want to be as common with the Army as possible, so we don’t have to buy unique helicopters to support our mission.”

Geoffrey Downer grew up near his busy base. “My dad was an aviator who flew fixed- and rotary-wing for the Army, which essentially made me a military brat. My childhood bounced between Fort Rucker, Alabama; Fort Benning, Georgia; and here in the Fort Eustis area.” Master Army Aviator George Downer pinned the Senior Executive Service badge on his son in a ceremony at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in 2019. “I’m an anomaly in the Army,” noted Geoffrey Downer. “I’ve been here for 39 years, not at just the same zip code, but at the same GPS coordinates. I was just so engaged and so enjoyed what I was doing here, I couldn’t imagine anything else.”

Downer explained, “We always seemed to be around aviation when I was growing up.” The senior Downer was stationed at Fort Eustis and the nearby Fort Monroe. “I was able to spend my middle-school and high-school years here in the [Virginia] Tidewater area. My real interest in aviation started in high school. My dad bought a Cessna 150. We started flying together, and that’s what drove me to get my pilot’s license, though I never quite got there.”

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg offered a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace and ocean engineering. “My interest was to join the military and fly. I figured the best path to do that, other than the service academies, was to get an aviation degree. It was Aerospace and Ocean engineering back in those days. I got into school, loved the classes, but about halfway through my time there, my eyesight started going bad, and I realized I wasn’t going to make it as an aviator.”

The new engineer found his calling in the structures group of the Applied Technology Laboratory at Fort Eustis, what is now the Technology Development Directorate, Aviation (TDD-A). Downer recalled, “I was surprised at how much authority they gave you early in your career. I was a young engineer, and they assigned me to work on the advanced technology retractable crashworthy landing gear for the Comanche. I was the project engineer and managed all the acquisition for it.”

Then-ATL Deputy Director John Shipley took notice. “He saw some of the work I was doing, and he was starting a new organization that ultimately started to support the 160th. I ended up working for Mr. Shipley for 36 years.” Shipley’s secretive Integrated Aviation Systems 21st Century Working Group evolved into today’s Aviation Integration Directorate (AID) under Special Programs (Aviation). “He was responsible for a number of the technologies we see in the SOF aircraft — the common cockpit, night vision devices, aerial refueling probes. A lot of the processes he developed on our campus are the basis of what Army Futures Command is doing with the tech demonstration for the Army’s future aviation programs.” (See “Society Update,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2021, for more details on the late John Shipley’s contributions to aviation.)

Common Solutions
AID is a Fort Eustis tenant drawing on TDD-A capabilities. Downer explains, “They have flight test cells and flight test engineers. They have an instrumentation group and flight test assets we use for the developmental flight testing. As we look to transition hardware to fielded capability, we use the Redstone Test Center. They do envelope expansion, flight loads surveys, other tests that demonstrate the aircraft is safe to fly. They hand it off to the 160th, which uses SIMO — the Systems Integration Management Office — to evaluate the new capability. SIMO pulls line pilots from the 160th to do operational evaluations because of the unique tactics, techniques and procedures developed for the missions they are required to fly.”

The MH-60M fleet is about halfway through Block I modifications that integrate the Black Hawk with Special Operations sensors, air refueling, and the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS). Downer noted, “We’re looking at what Block II is going to be, which is finding ways to restore performance in the aircraft, so we’re going to install the Army’s T901 [Improved Turbine] engine in our MH-60 aircraft. Right now, we’re flying with a non-common commercial engine, the General Electric YT706. We are also looking at weight reduction efforts, and enhancements to the rotor system.”

The first MH-47G Block II Chinooks have been delivered by the Special Operations Aviation Support Facility in Lexington, Kentucky. MH-47G Block II builds on the regular Army CH-47F Block II and shares enhancements with the broader fleet. “What we have done is work with the Army to increase the gross weight of the aircraft to 54,000 lb (24 metric tons), which is common to SOF. We have common nose and tail structure, so we’re driving towards commonality. We’re developing an improved drivetrain and improved rotor system jointly. There are different electrical harnesses, different fuel systems, some differences in the cockpits, but we’re pushing to have maximum commonality between the platforms.”

Little Bird Block II improvements give the agile, armed AH/MH-6M machined airframes, improved rotors, and a CAAS-like avionics management system. However, the Little Bird still flies at just 90 kt [165 km/h] and has limited range. “We have conducted studies to evaluate if the aircraft can be modified to a hybrid-electric configuration which could double the speed and double the range of the platform. By slowing the rotor and offloading the rotor by installing stub wings on the platform we can reduce the tip speed of the advancing blade. That allows adding a pusher prop in the back that will provide significant performance enhancements. Adding electric motors to power the main and tail rotor systems eliminates engines, transmissions, and other drive components. It’s a very interesting concept, we’re working with the Army and DARPA to gain advocacy.”

Not all AID projects start with the Night Stalkers of the 160th. DVEPS emerged as requirement from the Army Chief of Staff. “We were the lead agency for the early investigations of DVE, and TAPO [Tactical Applications Program Office] completed the concept studies,” noted Downer. First systems are being delivered for Special Operations, and Medevac helicopters. “Right now, our plan is to install A-kits [wiring and structural provisions] on all our platforms to receive future B-kits [working sensors].”

Downer added, “One of the new programs we just initiated is sensor-data fusion. We have DVEPS and terrain following/terrain avoidance radar installed on our aircraft. We are trying to figure out, using those two existing sensors, is there a way to derive more information for the pilot and crew by digitally merging that information. The concept is to merge or fuse the data from missile warning sensors and other sensors on the platform in the future to provide additional information to the crew without adding weight by adding redundant systems.”

Geoffrey Downer joined the American Helicopter Society (now VFS) in his early engineering days. “It’s a very active chapter with elements here at Fort Eustis, NASA down the street, and all the military bases in the area.” He observed, “When you’re working, your head’s down, and your area of exposure is pretty narrow. AHS/VFS gave me an opportunity to find other aviation people.”