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

Building on a family tradition in vertical flight, Fred Piasecki leads about 50 engineers at an “ideas company” with a range of projects and customers. “We try to organize ourselves in a manner that allows us to take real-world problems and either modify or innovate to solve those problems,” he explained. “It’s not all rotorcraft. We do transportation, logistics, electrical and energy work. Our engineering department is multi-disciplined. Everyone here has a couple of tricks they can pull out of their sleeves.” The tricks include lightweight power transmissions and advanced flight control laws applicable to Future Vertical Lift (FVL), mechatronics relevant to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and ducted propeller technologies key to electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL). “We are not concentrated in aero at all,” observed Piasecki. “It is a broad collection of skills. That’s probably why we can tackle large, complex problems with so few people.”

Piasecki Aircraft Corp. (PiAC) in Essington, Pennsylvania, also partners with government, industry and academia. ADAPT, the Adaptive Digital Automated Pilotage Technology effort, teams PiAC with the US Army’s Aviation Development Directorate in California, Calspan in New York, and The Pennsylvania State University on Fly To Optimal (FTO) control algorithms. FTO laws now in simulators can trim multi-effector aircraft automatically to mitigate pilot fatigue and compensate for damage. “We have high hopes the customer will want to advance this technology to flight,” said Piasecki. “We have the skill sets to take ideas to flight. There are many companies that can innovate, design, experiment, analyze, simulate. But companies that can actually engineer, build, test and then take to flight for a research mission, there are very few of those around anymore.”

The unmanned Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) meant to deliver modular payloads to the forward line of battle is near first flight, and chief engineer Piasecki observed, “The ARES project, the collaboration between DARPA [the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], AFRL [the US Air Force Research Laboratory], ourselves and Lockheed Martin has been very fulfilling, personally. We’re working with a very informed and motivated customer to advance technology — DARPA — and we have an OEM collaborator — Lockheed Martin — who brings a skill set unmatched in the industry. The typical
tensions of a VTOL project where you put two helicopter companies together is always a challenge. With Lockheed and PiAC, we’ve had an amazing collaboration.”

Engineering Model
Growing up with helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki afforded unique insights into technology leadership, design, project development and engineering. Fred Piasecki recalled, “When we were very young at birthday parties, dad would gas up the Bell 47D-1 and give rides to the kids. Mom and dad had seven children, and they put a very high stock on education and knowledge. Dad, because he was working so much, would combine family trips with business trips, so the idea of marching off to the Paris Air Show with seven children was quite normal. My mother, Vivian Piasecki, left Fordham [University] law school after a year to marry Dad and found joy subsequently teaching Sunday school and mentoring her children in arts and music. I loved her engagement with children. She treated children as if they could absorb an adult conversation.”

Fred Piasecki attended the all-boys Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia and credits his leadership skill to being captain of the 10-man football team. “I worked for PiAC in high school as the staff photographer,” he explained. “I attribute to that experience an understanding of the processes for project formulation, aircraft design, engineering, construction and test. Early on, I learned how to pull off a test and do it in a timely manner and document it.” The young photographer spent much time with engineers learning to overcome technical problems and scheduling nightmares. “The big project then was the VTOL airship called the Helistat. I got to work with some of my Dad’s key collaborators — specifically Don N. Meyers, who was the world’s best engineering mentor, as he would share theory, tools and real-world validation with the youngsters.”

All of the Piasecki children went to college. Fred settled on Boston University. “My dad always made sure there was an engineering department at whatever university it was. If you paired it down to the east coast, it was BU, Georgia Tech, MIT and Princeton, and I wasn’t going to Princeton or MIT.” Freshman Piasecki had no love of mathematics. “It was my interest in pilotage and flight that got me trained as an engineer and a pilot. In college, all my notebooks from liberal arts classes had airplanes drawn in the margins. I figured if my mind is drifting off on that, I better learn some engineering and math. By the time I decided to be an engineer, I had a lot of catching up to do. I really learned math — calculus and multi-variable calculus — from my physics teachers. If you applied math to a practical problem, I’d pick it up right away. If you presented something completely theoretical, you lost my attention in about 10 seconds.”

Fred Piasecki earned his Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1987. “By the time I graduated, the company was in a financial pinch. My dad just asked me, ‘can you come work for me for a while?’ The paycheck wasn’t much, but I did get a badge. I never left.” A SBIR [small business innovative research} contract made the new PiAC engineer principal investigator on an extended “wet” wing for the Marine Corps AH-1W. “That was the first product engineering job I had where I had direct customer contact. The Marines realized the armaments they need to carry were limited on the two-bladed Cobra. They didn’t have the money for a whole new aircraft but for mods to aircraft. Eventually, that research fed into the four-bladed [AH-1Z] Cobra.”

Another SBIR effort in the early 1990s from NASA Lewis Research Center (now NASA Glenn) considered electromotive rotorcraft technology for an Advanced Cargo Aircraft. “The fundamental work was on distributed electrical power and how that could change the typical weight growth of a very heavy lift rotorcraft, normally in the drive system. We got a very good understanding of what the benefits and downfalls of electrical power would be. The most promising design ended up being a ‘propelling rotor’ with propulsion located on the rotor blade itself. We were actually competitive with a mechanical drive at that point, but it took a lot of engineering trades to get it there.”

PiAC rotor expertise subsequently found application in the wind turbine industry. “The cost, construction and erection of large wind turbines is quite an engineering feat,” said Piasecki. “A lot of wind turbine owners have been working with us to make sure those costs can be reduced. The core of it is using rotorcraft technology.” PiAC engineers developed a complete wind turbine design with folding blades and articulated hub efficient in low-wind areas across the United States. “If you take a cross-section of wind turbines we use in the United States, most of them under-perform because they were designed to work in the North Sea.” Such projects are the focus of PiAC, explained Piasecki. “We organize the engineers around projects. You get a very talented, small group of people who can act quickly in a small group.”

Future Foundation
Fred Piasecki was project engineer for the X-49 SpeedHawk compound helicopter from initial design through ground test with its Vectored Thrust Ducted Propeller. “We had a lot of great people,” noted Piasecki. “Paul Danzig, Jimmy Cline and others, too many to name — guys who worked with my dad from HUP and HRP days.” (The Piasecki HRP Rescuer and HUP Retriever were the first purpose-built operational US naval helicopters in the 1940s.) The instrumented SpeedHawk was built up from a Navy YSH-60F with drive system modifications, a vectored thrust ducted propeller (VTDP) and a lifting wing. First-phase testing was limited by the Navy to the basic Seahawk flight envelope, but Piasecki observed, “The X-49 in my mind showed the incredible impact compounding can have on dynamic component loads/stresses of an existing rotorcraft design. It really can change the numbers a big way — I’m talking 20 and 30% reduction in alternating loads impacting the dynamics and wear on the whole rotorcraft. That’s where the money gets sunk.” Together with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) integrated product teams, PiAC refined X-49 simulator models before first flight. “The ability to do that loop, from simulation and modeling to a flight test to see where your estimates were wrong, was invaluable. We basically flew the flight test program with our original control laws. The mission of the X-49 right now is to advance the state of the art of flight control design, to take those flight laws, get them up in the air and advance their TRL [Technology Readiness Level] to flight status.”

PiAC’s work on the tail-sitting Tern and the air-launched TURAUS (a NAVAIR SBIR) draws on automation and other disciplines outside aerospace. The company is currently working on a Defense Department Class II and III small cargo UAS reminiscent of the 1950s Piasecki AirGeep flying car with shrouded rotors for ground safety. Shrouded and ducted fan arrangements are also widely used in eVTOL concepts, and Fred Piasecki said, “We’re mystified and excited at the same time by some of the design solutions coming out to solve the air taxi mission.”
Piasecki noted, “Where the technology gap is in the shrouded rotors is in the geometry. To really make a shrouded rotor shine, there’s morphing that needs to be done. The thrust augmentation you get in hover — static thrust — is quite well understood and relies a lot on lip geometry and where the stagnation point occurs. That can be predicted by CFD [computational fluid dynamics] quite well. When you get into up-and-away mode where you want to maximize propulsive efficiency, the inlet area and exit area and the thickness of the airfoil dominate the design space. The idea that you can have this very generous radius in the lip in a fixed geometry on the duct is not good for high speed forward flight.” The ARES cargo UAS uses a fixed-geometry duct.

Advances in rotorcraft face other obstacles, according to Piasecki. “I think the original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] have a business focus that’s less about innovating and more about capturing production orders. That’s what businesses are set up to be. There is a cadre of people in the government who know what innovation can do to the life-cycle cost of a rotorcraft and try to advance it. But over the timeframe of a multi-year project, keeping the focus and funding in place to go do big things is extremely difficult. On the flip side, when you organize an FVL [type of large program], everybody in industry and government has a different view of what FVL is. Sometimes when the goal is so broad and tectonic, the research becomes diluted.”

Fred Piasecki was president of Boston University’s American Helicopter Society student chapter when the AHS human-powered helicopter competition was announced. “I remember standing at the chalkboard with about 30 students interested in capturing that prize.” Today’s Vertical Flight Society continues to give him excellent communications channels to remain current on new technologies and associated developments. “I value my relationships even with competitors,” said Piasecki. “Engineering and advanced design do not happen in a single person. I got that notion very early from my dad — he really was an orchestra-master of design. No idea was passed up. He quickly vetted designs with experts at the table having a free-flowing discussion.”

Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Mar/Apr 2019