Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

David R. Arterburn, Director, Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville

With 18 full-time researchers plus adjunct faculty mentoring students in the University of Alabama in Huntsville Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC), David Arterburn oversees a range of rotorcraft and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology investigations. “It’s a multi-disciplinary team and a multi-disciplinary group of students,” he observes. “We have computer science, electrical, aero and mechanical engineers. That melting pot is really great for us. We meld students and move them across various platforms. They get that blend of academics and real-world applications that is very hard to get in other places.” The real-world applications come from the US Army and elsewhere in government and industry. “We’ve been awarded contracts from DARPA, DoD, NASA, NOAA, and from the VLC [Vertical Lift Consortium],” explains Mr. Arterburn. “We’re very diverse. We also have a customer base that knows us and knows what our skill set is and takes advantage of the value we provide.”

The RSESC’s skill set today bridges rotorcraft, unmanned systems, space and science payloads, and systems engineering. David Arterburn joined the Center in 2013 to refocus a rapid prototyping shop originally rooted in space payloads and space applications. “Our mission statement is really to support the vertical lift community in systems engineering applications and rotorcraft technology,” he explains. “We still have a build-and-demonstrate pedigree for what we do.” UAH engineers and technicians built the Surrogate Apache Block III National Airspace Trainer that put UAS capabilities into a piloted Bell 206 to train AH-64E test pilots on UAS interoperability. Their Hurricane Imaging Radiometer flies on NASA’s fixed-wing Global Hawk UAS. Ongoing RSESC research considers airworthiness criteria for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative and the safety of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System. “See-and-avoid is the hot topic right now,” acknowledges Mr. Arterburn. “But also, how do you communicate with these vehicles? How do other airspace users know they’re there so we can have safe and effective beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations?”

Try and Fly
Growing up on the outskirts of Aurora, Colorado, David Arterburn found his passion for aviation early. “It always fascinated me to watch the A-7 Corsairs and P-3 Orions that flew in and out of Buckley Air National Guard Base,” he recalls. A family friend and pilot made a lasting impression. “He took me up in his Cessna, flew me around, and I was hooked. I just loved being up in the air. That flight really cemented me at the age of 11 to say that’s what I wanted to make my career.”

Accepted by the Air Force Academy and West Point, the would-be aviator chose an Army career, drawn by US Military Academy graduates from his high school. “It was just something about the guys who came back from West Point,” Mr. Arterburn recalls. “They just seemed to be more in command of themselves and more fit, and that inspired me. I had never been to West Point. I couldn’t even point to it on a map, but there was something about those guys that made me say, ‘I want to be like them.’”

West Point offered an aeronautical engineering curriculum, but a physics major promised more options. David Arterburn notes, “I had no idea that the electrical engineering and physical principles that came from my physics academic track would help make me better test pilot and engineer working with electronics and flight controls later in my career.” A West Point visit by NASA astronauts who had graduated from test pilot school also provided more career focus. “I don’t know that I completely knew what an experimental test pilot did. I knew I liked the idea of applying engineering to my passion for flying. I liked the idea of constantly pushing technology.”

A flight school conversation at Fort Rucker with future Army astronaut then-Major Bill McArthur gave the test pilot hopeful some professional guidance. “He gave me some good advice — being a maintenance test pilot and gaining an extra understanding of how an aircraft works is very important for you moving down that track.” David Arterburn logged an operational tour on Black Hawks at Fort Bragg and subsequent duty as a maintenance test pilot before the Army sent him to the Navy Test Pilot School (TPS) at Patuxent River, Maryland. “What I loved about Pax was the connection between engineering and flying, that relationship between aerodynamics and control of various systems.” He adds, “It’s more than the ones and zeros — a good test pilot has to translate that engineering and flight test experience in some meaningful way to others outside the test community.”

 The 1996 TPS graduate returned to Fort Rucker as a Test Director and Project Pilot for the Aviation Technical Test Center and travelled extensively on a range of UH-60 test programs. At the Sikorsky Development Flight Center near West Palm Beach, Florida, David Arterburn flew tests of the Black Hawk growth rotor blade with Sikorsky pilots John Dixon and Kevin Bredenbeck. “That was my first experience flying jointly with an industry partner. . . . It really taught me I had to work hard to up my game to be among those very experienced test pilots.” The growth rotor blades became the wide-chord blades that fly today on the UH-60M.

As Chief of the Flight Projects Office at the US Army Aeroflightdynamics Directorate at NASA Ames, Moffett Field, California, David Arterburn flew the Rotorcraft Aircrew Systems Concepts Airborne Laboratory (RASCAL) with fly-by-wire flight controls. The enduring Black Hawk test aircraft has since demonstrated Degraded Visual Environment and autonomous flight control technologies. “All those investigations would not have been nearly as successful without the RASCAL aircraft being an asset to the Army and to NASA,” notes Mr. Arterburn. “Being part of the team that developed and matured the RASCAL aircraft is certainly one of the highlights of my career.”

When he retired from the Army in 2004, David Arterburn joined the Utility Helicopter program office in Huntsville to help integrate fly-by-wire controls into the UH-60M Upgrade. The assignment led to an appointment as Science and Technology manager at the Program Executive Office for Aviation and positioned him to become Chief Engineer for the OH-58F Cockpit and Sensor Upgrade (CASUP). “I came from one of the highest-technology aviation programs with fly-by-wire, active inceptors, and a modern-technology cockpit, and walked into the OH-58F. Its base was a 1965 aircraft modified multiple times in multiple configurations, so it was a real challenge trying to integrate modern technology into a platform that had been modified in so many different ways.

“The most rewarding thing about being in the Armed Scout Helicopter Project Office was I got to work with a really good team of engineers. I also got to work with pilots who were flying the Kiowa Warrior aircraft in combat. I never met a more innovative, creative and courageous group of operators, logisticians and engineers that were totally vested to put the best product in the field despite all the challenges.”

Test and Teach
A follow-on assignment as the Chief of Technical Management Division in the Armed Scout Helicopter office at the Program Executive Office for Aviation was interrupted by a call from UAH Vice President for Research, Dr. Ray Vaughn, who wanted a new director to take RSESC in new directions. The Army endowed RSESC in 2003 to develop new systems engineering methods based upon lessons learned from the integration challenges of the Comanche program.

RSESC gets work under continuing Army and NASA contracts, and the Center routinely competes for study and demonstration contracts. “We’re definitely focused on Future Vertical Lift and JMR [Joint Multi-Role],” explains Mr. Arterburn. “We’ve supported their education and training in Architecture Analysis Design Language — AADL — which is a new model-based systems engineering tool to model software and electronic hardware. We’ve also been supporting FVL with research to learn how these tools might help them and how to use them effectively over the life cycle.”

RSESC is also considering the future of the Army’s legacy aircraft: “What do program managers need do to keep their platforms relevant while we’re waiting for FVL to come aboard? If FVL were going to replace them in 10 years, that wouldn’t be an issue. If it’s going to be 25 or 30 years, some of these platforms are going to need upgrades.” One piece of the puzzle has RSESC working with the Utility Helicopter Program Manager trying to figure out how to keep the Black Hawk fleet relevant and moving forward to 2050. “We’re helping them understand how to do that from a handling qualities perspective,” says Mr. Arterburn. “Do they make improvements with partial-authority control laws, or do they make another run at a fly-by-wire capability in order to achieve improvements in Degraded Visual Environments? ‘Owning the weather’ really requires good handling in addition to sensors and displays.”

A study of airworthiness criteria for complex systems done in 2014 for the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) continues to drive research. “The idea was to study how we do airworthiness now and where there are potential shortfalls in that process to meet safety requirements and make platforms more affordable in the long term for all the technologies we think will be part of an FVL application. We’re going to have to change our thinking and processes if we’re going to have an aircraft as capable and complex as FVL while keeping the platform safe and affordable. My job was to bring academia, industry and the Government together to have that conversation, gather data, and feed back a report to the Aviation S&T Leadership where the Army should focus their time and resources to support a new airworthiness paradigm.”

UAH is also one of 14 universities partnered in the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE). “The ASSURE team is integrated into the FAA so they can make better decisions integrating UASs into the National Airspace [System],” says Mr. Arterburn. “In 20 years, I think the NAS is going to be open to UAS. In the next 20 years, the autonomy question may not be completely settled for operations throughout the NAS, but I think we’re learning how to harden these platforms as a function of design so that they’re very difficult to get into. That will open the door to more autonomous operations beyond visual line sight, especially with larger aircraft.”

In addition to Arterburn’s 25 years of membership in AHS International, RSESC also has a continuing relationship with AHS International. UAH hosts the AHS Redstone Chapter’s annual technical specialists’ meetings every February, as well as one this past September on systems engineering tools. This coming February is dedicated to the “Development, Affordability and Qualification of Complex Systems” (

Just how complex FVL systems will evolve is to be determined. “I certainly think they're going to be faster,” offers David Arterburn. “They’re certainly going to be easier to fly. I think you’re going to see fly-by-wire being the linchpin to optionally-piloted aircraft while also providing tremendous improvements in handling qualities for piloted aircraft. I think we’re just starting to get all of the tools in place to integrate all of these technologies in an airworthy and affordable design. At the same time, we’re getting a more creative, younger workforce that is born into this technology. They’re changing the way we think about how we integrate and use these systems.”

Vertiflite Leadership Profile: Vertiflite January/February 2016