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

Ken Eland, Chief Engineer, Chinook Program, Boeing Vertical Lift

With about 900 engineers at his disposal, Ken Eland oversees all domestic and international Chinook developments, including the new-build U.S. Army MH-47G Special Operations Aircraft and the Block II CH-47F. He acknowledges, “With all the work we’ve been fortunate enough to have with the F program, and our key international programs with Canada and the U.K., it’s been a pretty unique time on Chinook. Being able to maintain that level of work is a testament to how relevant the platform is.”

Boeing Philadelphia delivered the first production Chinook in August 1962 and begins assembly of the first new-build MH-47G this June. “Fifty years later, it’s one of the most relevant platforms there is in the DoD inventory. That’s a testament to the early pioneers – the Army, the users, and the people in this position before me who grew its capability.”

Chinook capability grew with engine, rotor and flight control enhancements, and with increasing systems integration. Mr. Eland observes, “If you look at the current generation of Chinooks, it’s all about situational awareness and digital connectivity. We’ve incorporated a completely digital cockpit with full glass displays, up-to-date battlefield connectivity and situational awareness through interconnectivity and the displays and processors to utilize it.”

The CH-47F program was named one of the top five U.S. Department of Defense engineering programs in 2011 based on its successful implementation of systems engineering best practices. Mr. Eland notes, “As a percentage of our design base, our Systems Engineering contingent is twice what it used to be.”

Growing up in and around Philadelphia, Ken Eland showed an aptitude for engineering. As a child, he was always building stuff and taking stuff apart. “Mechanical things always enamored me. I was more of a car guy than an aviation guy, probably because my dad was.”

The senior Eland was a mechanical engineer in the heavy truck industry. His son followed in his footsteps at Drexel University, a local school with “a very highly ranked mechanical engineering program,” recalls Mr. Eland. “It was also a financial decision, being that I had to pay for my own school.” He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering with an aerospace turn there. “I took a lot of courses on composite materials and stress analysis. If you wanted to work on composites in the mid-80s, you had to be at a leading-edge company” like a small start-up or an aerospace giant.

Composites and CAD
Hired by Boeing Manufacturing Research & Development, Mr. Eland started his career in composite innovations. “I was working on robotic winding of a pitch housing for the Boeing 360 at the time. The 360 was our all-composite, tandem-rotor demonstrator.”

Subsequent assignments in factory support and product support during V-22 full-scale development underscored the payoffs and challenges of large composite structures. “I think the 360 and V-22 early days taught us that, as cool as composite parts were, they had their places where they were really good and places where they weren’t so good.” Work on the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase drove cost and weight out of the V-22 by expanding Boeing’s capability to build larger, more complex composite structures affordably while using metal in key interfaces where load redistribution was needed. “By using the right materials in the right applications, you get a lower-cost product that’s easier to assemble and easier to maintain,” he says.

When the V-22 was stalled by the DoD in 1989, Mr. Eland transferred to the Boeing Sikorsky lightweight reconnaissance/attack Comanche program. His job was to work with team members on how to integrate affordable technology and capability in that platform – from stealthy advanced composite blades to state-of-the-art electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) systems. “We were designing advanced composite structures unlike anything anybody had done.”

The Comanche also transitioned Boeing Philadelphia engineers from Mylar-and-paper designs of the Boeing 360 and 2-D computer-aided design (CAD) tools of the initial V-22 to 3-D solids modeling. “There was a pretty solid base of CAD tools by the time we got on to Comanche.”

After a repeat V-22 assignment, Mr. Eland worked as a senior engineering manager with the Boeing operations team to bring the newest Chinook to production. “We had to work through wiring installation issues, software development problems, late product definition – many of the typical challenges.” After six months of heads down work designing and building an airplane for flight test to support a low-rate initial production decision, “we achieved first flight on the day originally planned with 10 minutes of daylight remaining.”

“From my early days in Manufacturing Research and Development, my initial opportunities were to be that bridge between design engineering and manufacturing” to produce designs that can be built, Mr. Eland observes. Experience has demonstrated time and again that bringing a group of people together to focus on common objectives is a key. “When we have challenges, people tend to withdraw from interaction in a way that can be not as productive as we need to be.”

Mr. Eland observes that AHS International brings vertical flight professionals together at the specialist and industry levels. “The forums are valuable resources for the sharing of technology developments. Clearly the insight into the improvement of rotorcraft safety and the interaction between academia and industry are true assets.”

He says Boeing’s participation in AHS International provides “the unique opportunities to interact with other members of industry that otherwise would not occur. Additionally, it brings together and defines a vertical lift community that can more substantially influence aviation in this important segment.”

While the Chinook has the advantage of being a well-understood platform, it poses unique challenges in a digital design environment. Drawings for one Chinook part bore a 1950s release date. Changing Mylar-defined parts into 3-D, digitally defined ones would seem easy, but in aerospace historically tools become the master definition of parts. “Contours and all those subtle little things get embedded in your tools,” Mr. Eland says. Over decades, “parts get modified and tweaked, and your product definition doesn’t always keep up with that.”    

The latest Chinook production programs are still only up to 65% digitally designed. The Boeing Virtual Integration Center now combines digital scans of real Chinooks with 3-D views. “We’re looking at 2-D drawings and actual 2-D installation photographs combined with things that we’re doing in 3-D to make sure we’re not missing things.”

Boeing engineers today also make regular use of rapid-prototyping tools. One Chinook team recently received recognition for its novel use of 3-D printing to prototype a circuit board test fixture. Mr. Eland notes a new, undisclosed modification would be rendered first on a 3-D printer. The design was finished the night before Vertiflite’s interview with Mr. Eland in mid-March. “We’ll print it out today and be able to put it on the airplane and make sure it’ll work as intended before we go cut metal.”

Ongoing Evolution
The Chinook continues to evolve to satisfy customers’ thirst for more payload and equipment capabilities and more lift than ever before, Mr. Eland says. “Our focus is on how do we provide the ability to operate in combat configurations – whether that’s with particle separators, IR suppressors or the next communications suite – without giving up the ability to carry as much payload as we can.”

The CH-47F Block II expected around 2019 leverages new rotor blade designs. Mr. Eland explains, “We’re targeting getting 2,000 lb additional lift just out of the new rotor blade, using today’s latest airfoil designs combined with our very durable root ends.” Combining the two lowers manufacturing risk, “so we can jump in and build them cost effectively from the get-go and make them interchangeable for the rest of the Chinook fleet.”

New engine, transmission and torque management technologies likewise promise to give Block II Chinooks more payload, especially at high density altitudes. More engineering may take Chinook capabilities beyond Block II.

“I think optionally manned Chinook will come into play someday,” says Mr. Eland, citing Boeing demonstrated ability to develop creative optionally manned designs and explore systems advancements such as electronic actuation. “As technologies continue to develop, some that just aren’t ready for production today are still opportunities for us to make the platform even better.”

The company has “a continuous approach to hiring young engineers, mixed with experienced engineers from across other Boeing sites and sometimes from outside Boeing,” he adds. Most young engineers are very capable and can process a lot of information quickly, but working on a program with the Chinook’s history can be daunting. “Sometimes, it can be challenging to figure out how we got to where we are today on things that have been that way for a long time.”

LEadership Profile: Vertiflite May/June 2013