Landing gear uses lasers to peer through dust

By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Oct 25, 2008 6:38:09 EDT

Helicopter pilots dropping in on dusty desert landing zones in Iraq and Afghanistan for years have fought the dangers of “brownouts” caused by dust plumes kicked up by the aircraft’s downdraft. Pilots have compared landing in a brownout to parallel parking a car with your eyes closed.
Now, the Navy and Marine Corps are on track to build a new generation of landing gear, a laser-based system with internal displays that would allow pilots to land in uneven, unfamiliar landing zones without needing to see the ground.
Navy and Marine Corps H-53 helicopters will be the first to receive the new technology, possibly as early as 2012, Navy officials say.
Other aircraft, including the V-22 Osprey and the H-1 and H-60 helicopter families, also may use the new technology, according to a statement from Naval Air Systems Command.
The command has begun looking for a contractor to provide “Helo Product 2,” which could dramatically reduce casualties and aircraft loss.
The H-53s are slated to receive the equipment first because their large size often generates the biggest dust plumes, and their large troop capacity means accidents can lead to significant casualties.
The Office of Naval Research has been developing components of the technology. There are no off-the-shelf products to address landing-zone brownouts caused by dust, smoke, snow or fog.
The Navy hopes a contractor could provide a prototype for demonstration, NavAir officials said.
Clearer, more complete screens

Current systems rely on GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems to indicate altitude and ground speed. Some also use digital cameras and infrared sensors, which are mostly blind in brownout conditions.
The next generation of landing gear will use lasers to provide pilots with a detailed image of the surface terrain. Using a display screen inside the aircraft, pilots will be able to compensate for uneven surfaces or aircraft drift without visual cues, according to NavAir.
The command anticipates that some squadrons may begin transitioning to the new gear in fiscal 2012.
Brownouts have caused more helicopter mishaps in recent military operations than all other threats combined, according to the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.