Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
John E. Schibler, Chief of Engineering, Attack Helicopter Programs, Boeing Vertical Lift
With 786 engineers at work on attack programs at the Boeing Vertical Lift facilities in Mesa, Arizona, John Schibler heads the interdisciplinary organization that evolved today’s AH-64E from the original Apache. “There’s probably some small percentage of us that go back to A-model days,” he observed. “There’s a higher percentage that go back to D-model days, but we’re very, very focused on hiring young engineers and reloading the cannons so when senior engineers get ready to retire, we’ll have men and women within Boeing who are more than capable to take over.”
Depending on future budgets, the AH-64E program of record stretches deliveries to the US Army through 2024 or 2026. Army leadership meanwhile expects Apaches in service until 2040 or 2060. With an engineer’s eye, Schibler notes, “From 2024 or 2026 to 2040 or 2060 is too long of a time to not infuse more technology to keep this attack platform relevant for our warfighters. We know some of the requirements coming down the pike, or what we think they’re going to be. Things like degraded visual environments, which will drive flight control changes — integrating sensors and flight controls for care-free maneuvering.
“We are cross-pollinating across Boeing. Chinook has done an awful lot of good work on digital flight controls. We’re taking a close look at that, so we don’t have to reinvent stuff. In terms of performance, we’ve got a composite tail rotor with more thrust and new designs for tailrotor and intermediate gearboxes already in work. We’ve got a composite tailboom design that meets the original ballistic requirements, and we have to marry it with a composite vertical. We’re looking at things associated with increased speed — two-speed transmissions, propulsors — and doing wind tunnel testing along those lines. We’ve got to get drag out of the airplane to increase speed and now we have to worry about retreating blade stall — all kinds of fun stuff you’ve got to balance in order to make the aircraft at the systems-level work the way you design it.”
John Schibler’s father, John Sr., was an electrical engineer by training and a project engineer on historic North American Aviation programs from the P-51 fighter to the early B-1 bomber. “He was a very strong influence in my life,” acknowledges the junior Schibler. “I’ve got pictures of P-51 Mustangs on my wall, and someone always asks why I have those there. It was my dad’s favorite airplane.”
Graduating from Pacific Palisades High School in southern California, the younger Schibler nevertheless studied biology and chemistry, first at Brigham Young University and later at University of Southern California, playing baseball and aiming for a career in dentistry. John Sr. and North American Rockwell (as it was by then called) intervened. “When I came back from my freshman year at BYU, my dad said, ‘Congratulations, I’ve got you a job. You don’t even have to drive. You can ride with me to work.” John Schibler joined North American Rockwell as a summer hire in 1973 and a year later received a full-time employment offer. “I started working for North American Rockwell as an engineer in materials research for the B-1 program. At the time, we were trying to build a dorsal longeron out of boron-epoxy composite. In addition to that, they were flying around with radomes and other composite structures.”
The Carter Administration canceled the B-1A, and Schibler recalled, “When many more senior engineers got laid off, they kept me in composite research. Some of the engineers I worked with went to Hughes Helicopters. In June of 1978, they had just won a contract for the Apache helicopter, and they were assembling designers to take it into production. I came in as a very young engineer in the M&P [Materials and Processes] group at the time, and I was brought in specifically because of the work I had done for the B-1 on nuclear, biological, and in this case, chemical warfare requirements relevant to the A-Model Apache.”
The Advanced Attack Helicopter forced Hughes to grow quickly, and the young engineer saw the evidence in vellum drawings. “There were different groups of designers who all brought their design manuals from whatever company they had just left. We were working on the right-hand and left-hand walkway doors, and the right-hand door drawing had one set of composite layups and ply orientation. The left-hand door was different. It was a lot of fun because you had the confluence of a lot of engineers coming from different companies, all with different design guidelines.”
Successive Apache models imposed digital design disciplines. “A lot of these folks moved with me through the AH-64D. I became the chief engineer on the Echo model. A lot of us grew up together, and we all do design and annotations the same. We’ve all been together a long time and the design tools help fortify that. It’s just a different world. We have design tools now, and the rules of how you call things out and general notes are kind of built into your design-and-release configuration management tool. We happen to use one called Team Center Engineering.”
A to D to E to … ?
Apache modernization also began to broaden engineering specialties. John Schibler explained, “When you think about the A-model, it was the old steam-gauge mentality. It was a 14,660 lb (6.65 t) sports car. When we went to the D-model, the emphasis was on displays in the cockpit, computing power. We had the systems, display and weapons processors. The D-model incorporated a different sensor on the main rotor head — the radar. With all the sensors coming on the D model, we had to have a crew station — a cockpit — that could process all that information. Most of these were analog systems. It still had the same engine power, the same transmission, drive system, the same rotors. Basically it was now an aircraft that was now operating north of 18,000 lb [8.16 t] full mission gross weight with the same power. While it was more lethal at a greater standoff distance, it was heavier and less maneuverable.”
Block I and Block II AH-64D Apache Longbows also grew more difficult to repair with long, contiguous wire harnesses and co-cured composite Expanded Forward Avionics Bays. The Army was receptive to a Block III modernization that became the AH-64E Apache Guardian. “They wanted their sports car back — that was all about aircraft performance. And they wanted increased situational awareness — that was all about more sensors, bandwidth and throughput in the computer systems. That drove different electrical power systems. The mechanical systems drove hydraulic redesigns. It was a major challenge going from the D to the E, maybe more than from the A to the D.”
Boeing Program Capability Teams now include Airframes and Dynamic Systems, focused on the AH-64E air vehicle. “That’s your airframe, your rotors, your drive systems and the configuration definition, because they own the basic fuselage. The next major design team is Platform Systems — that’s hydraulics, electrics, electrical power, flight controls, those kind of things. The final one is our Mission Systems Team. They’re all things avionics and all things software. The rest of our engineering teams are organized around support functions like configuration management, systems engineering, simulation, and production support engineering, that’s your manufacturing engineers, your liaison engineers, your tool design engineers, and your industrial engineers.”
Filling the need for new engineers drives new recruiting, explained Schibler. “Boeing has ‘Executive Focals’ [assigned] to a lot of key universities. For example, I’m the Executive Focal to the University of Arizona School of Engineering. The U of A at Tucson does a lot of really cool stuff. We got a lot of computational fluid dynamicists from there.” Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Penn State, Stanford and Embry-Riddle are equally fruitful. “We have a very well organized global recruiting network. Most of the engineers I go after and recruit at U of A I’ll bet end up in Seattle with CFD capability, but I don’t care, as long as they’re helping The Boeing Company.”
The quest for engineers has also led offshore. “With Boeing a more global-focused company, we have quite a few local engineers in the UK. We have a handful and growing in India. That’s become very relevant to us in helping us grow our engineering staff. We look and recruit globally as well.”
About 10% of the Boeing Mesa engineering staff work on the AH-6i and other Little Bird projects. The Arizona team is also part of the Boeing contribution to the SB>1 Defiant Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstrator under development with Sikorsky. “We’re very involved in Defiant,” said Schibler. “Some of our best engineers from Block III did a guest-set when they collocated to Connecticut in the early days. The things that Mesa is good at are coming back to roost in Mesa. The rotor blade is being developed and built here in Mesa. The actual airframe is here in our structures lab.”
JMR aims to increase rotorcraft speed for future battlefields. John Schibler offered, “You’re always chasing speed, range, payload and endurance. You’ve trying to balance those four elements in your design. If you chase solely speed, if you say it’s got to go 225 kt [417 km/hr] straight and level, you’d better have a really good reason in a mission role. You’re going to compromise payload and endurance with the fuel you need to do that and you need to reduce drag. I think we’re really going to have to firm ourselves up on what the threat really is, but you still have to balance speed, range, payload and endurance.”
The Boeing Mesa chief engineer is meanwhile working to increase local participation in AHS International. “When I first joined AHS in Southern California, I found it was very aloof. As a materials and structures-minded person, they were kind of focused on aerodynamics and performance technologies. Hughes Helicopters kind of reserved membership for those type folks. AHS fell out of favor with me for a number of years. I’ve come back in the last 15 years as an avid member and in the last decade as an outspoken supporter.” He concluded, “The group is growing with our early career professional, and we’re selling it as a great networking opportunity.
Vertiflite Leadership Profile: Vertiflite March/April 2017