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

Larry F. Plaster, Manager of Apache Modernization Programs, The Boeing Company

Ten years after Larry Plaster became manager of Apache Modernization Programs at Boeing Rotorcraft, the first Apache Longbow with combined Block III avionics and structural improvements flew at Mesa, Arizona. Under current plans, Boeing Mesa will deliver 634 Block III AH-64Ds to the US Army from 2011 to 2025. The enhanced attack helicopter has already won its first international order, and Boeing Rotorcraft has implemented Mesa engineering disciplines in its Philadelphia operations. Mr. Plaster explains, “The process that I put in place for Apache modernization has now been modeled by both the CH-47 and V-22 programs. It’s a Rotorcraft-level process for research, development, and technology transition.”

To keep the Apache relevant and cost-competitive, Larry Plaster oversees six program managers who identify new technology candidates and execute technology research and development programs for the Apache. “I require all of my program managers to be engineers,” he says. “They have to understand the technology. Most of them have very broad backgrounds, so I can use them for just about any type of program.” Apache Modernization Program Managers do double-duty on the new AH-6I armed scout helicopter and proposed Navy Ship-To- Shore-Connector programs. They average 15 years with Boeing; according to Mr. Plaster, “You can’t take a guy out of school and teach him how to manage a new technology development program. . . . For new product development – knowing where you have to make decisions, when good enough is good enough, when to take risk and not take risk – you only get that through experience.”

Growing up in Hurst, Texas, Larry Plaster’s rotorcraft experience began around age 10 with a ride in a Bell 47. “For some reason, I was fascinated with airplanes from a very young age. I don’t know where that started, but I built models, cut articles out of magazines, did my own designs.” College nevertheless started the future helicopter engineer down a different path. “I didn’t start out in aerospace,” Mr. Plaster admits. “I got a scholarship to Texas Tech out of high school, and my major for the first year was engineering physics. I really wanted to go into the space program at that time – I’d have loved to have been an astronaut, but even by then I couldn’t have passed the eye test.”

College nevertheless led back to rotorcraft. Mr. Plaster recalls, “After the first year, I got an opportunity to go
into the engineering co-op program with Bell Helicopter. That was the middle of the Vietnam War, and a lot of people were afraid to go into co-op programs for fear they’d get drafted. I just decided to take that risk because I knew Bell and had an interest in rotorcraft.” A Transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington changed Larry Plaster’s major to aerospace engineering and alternated terms in school with semesters at Bell. “I worked in the aerodynamics department doing analysis on a number of things, including looking at wind tunnel data from the XV-3 and supporting several wind tunnel tests for changes to the Cobra.”

Bell experience further enhanced Mr. Plaster’s appreciation of the helicopter. “The rotorcraft design problem is just more difficult than anything other than space. It’s a fascinatingly difficult machine to model. At that time, we were just beginning to get really robust models for fixed wings. Good rotorcraft aerodynamic models were just in their very beginning. We really didn’t have the computer power to do that very well because of its complexity.”

Co-op rotations culminated in a degree in aerospace engineering and a job. “I didn’t graduate until 1971, and that was during a terrible downturn in the aero industry. Everyone was laying-off,” remembers Mr. Plaster. However, one layoff at Bell created an opening for a new engineer. “They hired me into the rotor design department out of college.” Early assignments included design work on the main rotor blade for the Bell UTTAS (Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System) contender. The new Bell aeronautical engineer learned rotor blade manufacturing processes for the UH-1H Huey and Cobra 540 blades and joined the material review board addressing manufacturing discrepancies in the blade shop. Taiwan’s Huey coproduction program provided another opportunity. Mr. Plaster explains, “I volunteered for that job and went to Taiwan for a little over two years to teach them how to build rotor blades.”

Learn By Doing
Back from Taiwan, the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition between Bell and Hughes Helicopters gave Larry Plaster two years of long workdays as a flight test engineer on the uninspired Bell YAH-63. He remembers, “Bart Kelly was still at Bell Helicopter at that time, and we could not convince him that anything but a two-bladed rotor could possibly be successful.” Performance and ballistic requirements gave the Bell AAH a main rotor with 50 inch chord. “They did quite a bit of modeling on the blade itself and the tip design. They didn’t do a whole lot of modeling on the airframe, unfortunately. We couldn’t come close to meeting the level flight performance requirement.”

Flight test experience led to a government job with the FAA Rotorcraft Directorate in Fort Worth. Mr. Plaster explains, “After the YAH-63 program, my next major assignment was the Bell 222 program. I went through flight test on that, and then we were just starting the Bell 214STcertification process. I went from being a flight test engineer at Bell on that program and was back working to help Bell certify that with the FAA within a month.”

The Rotorcraft Directorate began its own certification testing of international rotorcraft in 1981. “I worked on pretty much every civil rotorcraft that existed at that time – Aerospatiale, MBB, Sikorsky, Hughes. I did some flight test work as a flight test engineer on all of those.” Mr. Plaster notes, “In the UK, in Australia, there’s a formal certificate to be a flight test engineer. In the US, you learn by doing.” He recalls, “When I got to the UK and they found out that I was a flight test engineer without a certificate, my stature was instantly very low. In the UK, everybody has a certificate for everything.”

A trip to Phoenix in 1986 introduced Larry Plaster to kit helicopter manufacturer B. J. Schramm looking to hire an engineer to help certify his new Windstar. “I really didn’t want any part of it, but he kept offering me more and more money until I couldn’t turn it down. In 1987, I came to Phoenix to help him certify this four-place helicopter.” With the enterprise on shaky financial ground a year later, Larry Plaster found a job with McDonnell Douglas Helicopters. “I actually went back as a manager in rotor design, back to my roots, but as a manager. The first assignment I had was the development of the NOTAR fan for the Model 500N program.” He recalls, “It was a technology a lot of people didn’t believe would work. We made it work not only on the 500N, but on the 600N and the 900. There was a lot of satisfaction in finding a way to make that aerodynamically function the way it should and provide a safer aircraft.” Larry Plaster became McDonnell Douglas Helicopters’ manager of civil certification. “In the next five years, we certified the 500N, the 600N, and the MD900 all in rapid succession, all major certification programs, with the 900 being a totally new aircraft. Few companies have accomplished that much certification work in such a short period of time.”

Mr. Plaster’s responsibilities grew to include Safety and Product Integrity, but the merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in 1999 forced another change. “When they decided to divest the commercial business, I had to make a choice of either going to MD Helicopters or staying with then-Boeing. I was very concerned about the management at MD, so I decided not to go with them in spite of a great deal of my background being mostly civil.”

Advancing Apaches
Boeing Mesa was remanufacturing Block I AH-64Ds when Larry Plaster reported to Apache modernization manager Hugh Dimmery. “We knew that because of all the things we had added to the A model to make it a D, that the performance of the aircraft was going to be a problem, that cost was a problem, especially O&S cost, and obsolescence was going to a problem. We began working on technologies that would address those things, and the heart of that was the composite rotor blade, the split-torque face gear drive system to get more power in the aircraft, and the open avionics architecture which started out as ROSA – the Rotorcraft Open System Architecture. All of those made it into Block III.”

The Boeing modernization plan took time to find support. “The person in the Army who had the courage to support it and helped go forward was Colonel Ralph Pallotta,” notes Mr. Plaster. “I started with his predecessor, and the first time Dimmery and I went in to brief him, he literally threw us out of the office. You’ve got to remember that at that time, Comanche was going to do everything, so you couldn’t even talk about improving an Apache. Colonel Pallotta had the courage to say, ‘You know, we’re going to have to upgrade the Apache,’ and he made that decision before the Comanche was canceled.”

Larry Plaster became manager of Apache Modernization Programs in April 2000, and parallel efforts began to coalesce. “The Drivetrain 2000 and Apache Affordable Rotor Program merged in the Apache Affordable Growth Program, which eventually became Block III.” The Growth program also included a composite airframe and fly-by-wire flight controls. “When we transitioned to Block III, it was decided not to pick up the composite program from early-on. The fly-by-wire program was part of Block III until very, very late. It was decided to delete it to get development costs down.” Mr. Plaster reflects, “I was really amazed at what we did get in. The biggest one, the one that was the most risk and that Colonel Pallotta agreed with, was the split-torque, face-gear transmission. That was new technology no one had ever made work before, and it took a lot of courage to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to go with that.’”

Apache Modernization continues to leverage new technology. “I continually try to bring in suppliers. We know what Apache needs, and when we find an intersection there, we work together with the suppliers to bring the technology along to mature it.” Boeing and transmission maker Northstar contributed to the Block III drive system development. “That’s sort of the model that I’ve used,” says Mr. Plaster. “Nobody has enough money to develop anything on their own any more. But together, if we pool our resources, we’ve been pretty successful in being able to get there.”

Apache managers look beyond Block III. “The aircraft still needs more performance,” acknowledges Mr. Plaster. “The Block III performance increase is substantial, but it will still require in Afghanistan that you trade off fuel or bullets.” He explains, “The composite aft fuselage that I’ve been working on is, I believe, a key technology for Extended Block III that will improve performance and reduce weight in the aft part of the aircraft so we can move the cg [center of gravity] forward. To go along with that, we need an improved tail rotor drive system so we can take advantage of the new power available in the main transmission.“

We upgraded the Block III with an advanced architecture, and it will get an advanced communication system and advanced data links that will allow us to bring orders of magnitude more information on board the aircraft. In order for this aircraft to operate really effectively in an information-rich network environment, we need the crew station upgraded with better displays, larger displays, more effective helmet displays, and more automation.”

Apache modernization at Boeing still relies on an experienced engineering force, but Mr. Plaster notes, “To me, that’s one of our challenges today. A whole bunch of those folks are going to retire soon. We’ve got to get the young people in here to replace them.” Though Boeing Mesa has an active internship program, “It’s very hard for me to use an intern in program management. . . . What I have to do is keep bringing in people who have achieved that 15 years or so experience but are still young enough that they’re going to be here for another 10 or 15 years. If I’m doing my job right, my good people will get promoted somewhere else.”

Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Fall 2010