Iowa City Press-Citizen: High Flying Research
UI-owned jets test military technology and conduct studies
By Josh O'Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Tom Schnell had shed his pilot’s helmet and flight suit in favor of street clothes, for the time being.
He watched as a group of Rockwell Collins employees huddled around the cockpit of his small jet — a Cold War-era, east-European fighter trainer with a Herky logo on its nose — parked outside the hangar.
It was mid-afternoon Wednesday at the Iowa City Municipal Airport, and Schnell’s test flight had been postponed since morning while the crew sorted through a technical hangup. The researchers unspooled extension cables from the hangar and plugged their laptops into a rack of testing instrumentation mounted in the jet’s back seat. Meanwhile, about 30 miles north in Cedar Rapids, systems lab workers at Rockwell Collins’ headquarters were waiting to monitor Schnell’s flight, if and when he got off the ground.
The mission’s pilot had to duck out for a while, he apologized. “I have to teach a class,” said Schnell, whose engineering students soon would be awaiting him on the University of Iowa campus.
Flying by the seat of his G-suit pants on days like this is nothing new for Schnell, a Swiss-born research pilot and associate professor in industrial engineering at UI. Schnell often puts in 70 hours a week at the airport, weekends included, and this rigorous week of flight tests was shaping up to be no exception.
“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing,” Schnell said of the hours of tinkering that day, on top of the months of preparation before the flight — one of several he was to make this week testing sophisticated GPS and telemetry electronics in development at Rockwell Collins.
Schnell is the founder and director of UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory, where he oversees a team of about a dozen researchers and a small, UI-owned fleet of aircraft and ground vehicles. The OPL is a self-funded branch of UI’s College of Engineering, bringing in between $1 million to $2 million a year, largely through military and industry contracts, with Rockwell Collins serving as its primary partner.
The OPL, housed in two hangars at the airport, has the feel of the military bases much of the lab’s work is tailored to. On this day, beneath an oversized American flag dangling from the rafters, sat one of the OPL’s two Aero L-29 Delfin jets, along with a camouflaged MI-2 twin turbine military helicopter. Another small plane, a 1978 Beech Bonanza, was parked in the hangar next door. Outside, near the blue and gold L-29 being being readied for flight, was a sand-colored Humvee containing a mobile communications lab.
Nick Anderson, a research engineer for the OPL, was providing technical support for the Rockwell crew Wednesday, in addition to helping install a cutting-edge instrument panel — also built by Rockwell — in the helicopter.
“I’ll meet people and they say, ‘What do you do?’ And I say I work with those jets out at the airport,” the 21-year-old Anderson said. “They say, ‘I’ve seen those; those are university jets? I didn’t know we had that.’ That’s the response of 95 percent of people.”
Lowell Buchholz, marketing manager in government systems at Rockwell Collins, was on site Wednesday at the OPL observing preparations for the testing of the company’s new positioning and telemetry system, which has been in development for five years.
The electronics were housed in a 10-foot-long pod — essentially an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile casing hung from the underside of a wing where the weapon would be mounted. In the plane’s backseat was a rack holding more computer equipment, called “the truth,” which would collect the same information as the pod to determine its accuracy.
The $200 million project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, will result in the pods one day being fixed to F-15, F-18 and F-35 jets for training exercises at Army, Navy and Air Force test ranges.
Although Rockwell has its own planes in Cedar Rapids, the company doesn’t own anything quite like OPL’s jets, which are necessary for these kinds of tests, Buchholz said. Working at 10,000 to 18,000 feet in his flights this week, Schnell was set to perform a series of aerobatic maneuvers to put the system through its paces before the electronics are taken for testing at Air Force and Navy ranges later this year.
“They provide the kinds of platforms that give you very close to fighter dynamics,” Buchholz said of Schnell and the OPL. “Tom does all kinds of different maneuvers — rolls and various things that cause problems for GPS performance and problems for data link performance. So those are the kinds of tests we’re doing here to optimize our solution to work in those environments.”
The OPL also is partnering with Rockwell Collins on a separate, ongoing project to develop a state-of-the-art pilot training system commissioned by the Office of Naval Research. The system generates simulated enemy aircraft that can be virtually integrated into actual combat training flights, and it allows people manning flight simulators on the ground to virtually fly alongside or against real-world pilots anywhere in the world in real time.
Every fighter jet that can be replaced by a simulated training partner can mean tens of thousands of dollars in savings per session for the military, and countless millions in the long run, Schnell and Buchholz said.
“Having artificial intelligence enemies, so to speak, programmed into your electronics that you can go practice against, it’s almost like shadowboxing,” Schnell said. “You can spar against an electronic opponent instead of a real one.”
Rockwell and the OPL successfully demonstrated the technology at a flight training and simulation conference in December in Orlando, Fla., Buchholz said. While spectators in Florida watched remotely, UI’s two jets, airborne in Iowa, engaged computer-generated enemies.
“So basically you’re surrounding that pilot with a bunch of virtual forces so they can interact with them as if there’s a lot more airplanes in the air,” Buchholz said. “That will improve his training, save money and make him more prepared for battle.”
Tom “Mach” Schnell, 46, grew up in Switzerland dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot. But when he was old enough to take the test to join the military, he learned his astigmatism disqualified him from flying.
Instead, Schnell buckled down on his studies, a path that eventually led him to the U.S. and Ohio University for his post-graduate work in industrial engineering. It was there, pursuing his Ph.D. in the mid-1990s, that he began flying airplanes.
Schnell’s adviser at the time sent him on frequent trips to Washington, D.C., an eight or so hour drive that made for a grueling single-day round trip. To cut down on that travel time, Schnell earned his pilot’s license.
Schnell’s research early in his career centered on automobile safety, specifically drivers’ night vision as it relates to signage and pavement markings. When he landed a job at UI in 1998, he brought that work with him, starting essentially from the trunk of his car, as he put it, conducting research for the National Highway Transportation Administration and sign manufacturers such as 3M.
Meanwhile, Schnell was logging more and more time in the cockpit, and by the early 2000s, he made the decision to gear his research toward aviation.
“As a pilot, I wanted to make my passion of flying as part of my job,” he said.
Schnell received a small funding seedling from Rockwell Collins in 2000 to study synthetic vision technology for flight crews, which led to a large project the following year with NASA’s aviation safety program.
“That planted the hook for wanting to do more,” Schnell said. “We earned our keep, at that point. NASA recognized us and started awarding grants to us as we started being known for being problem solvers and hard workers. Things improved size wise from there.”
The OPL began renting a small space at the airport in 2004 and purchased its first plane, the Bonanza, for a NASA project in 2006. Schnell’s team used the plane to develop a synthetic vision navigation system, which was later sold to a manufacturer and became commercially successful.
Schnell acquired the OPL’s two jets — the Czech-made L-29s designed for fighter pilot training in Eastern Bloc countries — in 2008 and 2011. The jets were decades old but in excellent condition and relatively affordable; Schnell bought the newer of the two for $26,000.
Today the OPL, a sub-unit of UI’s Center for Computer Aided Design, is home to a half-dozen faculty and staff members, and as many student workers, including high school interns. Among the lab’s research highlights has been its work studying pilots’ brain patterns and other physiological responses using sensors during combat scenarios.
“We can actually figure out from that how hard their brains are thinking,” Schnell said. “The accuracy with which we can do that is pretty stunning and in real time. We have developed the capability to have sort of a brain-power fuel gauge in real time. That is a scientific achievement that I think we’re pretty proud of.”
Just before sundown Wednesday, his engineering class over with and back in the cockpit, Schnell at last roared down the runway, Rockwell’s missile-like electronics pod tucked beneath the wing. He would make a series of subsequent flights in the coming days to complete this round of testing for Rockwell.
“Going out and flying is by far not the rule of what I do; it’s the exception,” said Schnell, who on average flies a couple times a month. “There’s a lot of hard work that happens for every one-hour flight.”
Those long hours of groundwork pay off, though, when he rockets above the cloud canopy, the instruments kick into action and the research begins.
Anderson, the research engineer who often flies as the first officer on test flights with Schnell, described it best: “The moment everything works and the airplane is in the air, it’s just magical.”
And on flight days like this for Schnell, you’d be hard pressed to find a professor with a better office view.