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

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite November/December 2019

Cliff Johnson, Research Engineer, Federal Aviation Administration

Within the aviation research division of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) William J. Hughes Technical Center near Atlantic City, New Jersey, Cliff Johnson manages a portfolio focused on helicopters, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. “We’re doing a lot of work with helicopters and drones,” he noted. “I like working with these communities and commercial operators because they’re often the forgotten folks compared to air transport aviation. They’re just as important, if not more so, due to all the missions and lives that they support.”

Helicopter and UAS research also positions the Tech Center to study eVTOL concepts for future urban air mobility (UAM) missions. “A lot of our focus is on infrastructure to support the vehicles,” said Johnson. “How do we certify the vehicles? How do we integrate them into the airspace where everybody else is flying? I do believe there are some things we can take from our previous experience, both with helicopters and drones, that will enable us to look at the problems and come up with real solutions.” Johnson concluded, “It’s a huge challenge, one that we’re working on here at the Tech Center along with a lot of folks in industry.”

Tech Center collaborations with industry working groups and the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) have already advanced flight data monitoring and enhanced helicopter vision systems (EHVS). According to Johnson, “We’ve been able to go out to the community and through the USHST and the Helicopter Safety Alliance get pilots and maintainers excited about flight data monitoring. It’s not just about using the data to see what went wrong during an accident. You can use it as an everyday tool in order to be proactive about safety. It’s still a challenge, but I see the community coming around, and that’s really rewarding for me.”

EHVS flight tests in the FAA’s S-76A helicopter identified key technical and human performance areas. “There are technical challenges with EHVS regarding sensor/display field of view, performance, display symbology, etc.,” explained Johnson. “These are further complicated by the unique way that helicopters fly. Flying a point-in-space approach to a hospital helipad or an oil rig is a lot different than flying a typical instrument approach to a runway. We still have a ways to go in order to address certification constraints and develop an operational concept that could grant operational credit for EHVS the way we do today for fixed-wing enhanced flight vision systems. We are actively working with our research partners on solutions to these challenges.” The Technical Center is the FAA’s aviation and air transportation system laboratory. “I manage different research programs and work with all technical disciplines,” explained Johnson. “I have several contractors — operations analysts, engineers, computer programmers, pilots, etc. We have our core expertise, and then we bring in other skillsets as required.”

The FAA teams with the Georgia Institute of Technology through the Center of Excellence Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS), the agency’s Center of Excellence for General Aviation. “Georgia Tech has been a tremendous partner, along with the Helicopter Association International (HAI), TruthData and LZControl, working on novel methods of analyzing rotorcraft data,” said Johnson. “My alma mater, Rowan University, is a leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and we are working with them in this area. In addition, we are also working with Rowan on augmented and virtual reality research for head-worn/ helmet-mounted displays and helicopter simulators.” Georgia Tech and Rowan research was presented at VFS Forum 75 in Philadelphia.

Industry collaborators routinely supply test hardware, software and engineering expertise for Tech Center research. “We’ve performed flight tests with the Universal [Avionics]/Elbit SkyLens display and HeliEVS sensor looking at pilot performance aspects of vision systems with different visual cues. We’ve done similar work with Thales with their TopMax system and with Astronics/MaxViz EVS 1500/2300 sensors.” Johnson added, “Our focus is typically foundational or applied research, so we don’t create a new vision system, sensor or display. Instead, a lot of our work is installing and testing candidate systems and technologies in real, operational environments.&rdquo

Aircraft near-misses drove the Tech Center to study compatibility between light-emitting diode helipad lights and night vision goggles. Johnson said, “Our research is primarily driven by the desire to reduce the helicopter fatal accident rate and the FAA’s goals and priorities to enhance aviation safety.” FAA researchers joined with NASA and the Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center this summer to characterize noise from S-76D, AW139, Bell 205 and HH-65 helicopters. “The results may eventually be incorporated into improved rotorcraft models for our aviation environmental design tool.”

South Jersey
Cliff Johnson grew up in Cedarville, New Jersey, and attended high school in neighboring Millville, about an hour west of Atlantic City. “I was a Thunderbolt,” he recalled. “The mascot of Millville High School was named after the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. Millville was a training base for P-47 pilots during World War II. Many years later, I used to hunt and fish with my dad in the game preserve built on the training range.” The base became a civil airport, and Johnson’s mother introduced her son to aircraft. “She took me down to the airfield all the time when I was young just to watch the planes take off and land. I really enjoyed that and the times that my dad took me to local airshows. I never thought that I’d become a pilot, but I guess I still had aviation and transportation in my blood.”

Johnson studied at Rowan University in nearby Glassboro, New Jersey. “One of the things I was really interested in was engineering and working in transportation. Growing up, I loved trains; I still do. As I got older, I became more fascinated with racecars, space and aviation. What drew me to Rowan was that it was an established university with a new engineering program. I was in one of the first classes, and I enjoyed the personalized attention they gave to each student.”

Rowan’s mechanical engineering curriculum offered aerospace opportunities. “They had a small wind tunnel there. At the time, we had a couple of professors doing work with NASA, so I was able to work on some projects related to smart sensor design for rockets that were being built at the Stennis Space Center down in Mississippi. One of the projects I was able to work on at Rowan was laser safety, and I was able to apply that experience directly for the FAA when we started working on laser eye protection for pilots.”

Southern New Jersey also offered jobs. Johnson recalled, “One of the places I wanted to work was here at the FAA Technical Center. I didn’t have a great idea of all the work that was done here, but when I was in high school, we had a visit from some folks from Lockheed Martin who talked about the different opportunities [at the Tech Center]. I kept that in the back of my mind, and when I graduated from college, I applied to the FAA, got hired, and have been here ever since. I’ve worked on a variety of cool, challenging, and interesting things.”

With Pilot or Without
Cliff Johnson recalled, “When I joined the FAA, I had a wonderful opportunity through a cooperative research and development agreement that we had entered into with Boeing Insitu. It was the early days of unmanned aircraft systems, circa 2010, and they brought a military UAS here. They were interested in how to transition it into the National Airspace System.”
The UAS group included non-flying engineers, helicopter and fighter pilots, and an airline pilot who later became Johnson’s flight instructor. “They took us through eight weeks of ground school and flight school, and we were qualified on the ScanEagle. We did a number of flights in restricted airspace at the Warren Grove bombing range. From there, I flew some other platforms in our UAS simulators and then turned my attention to some of the smaller quadcopter drones as the UAS revolution took off.”

FAA researchers teamed with the Department of Defense on the joint airspace integration test. According to Johnson, “It was a gigantic simulation focused on standardized procedures for unmanned aircraft systems including lost communications — lost-link — and detect/sense-and-avoid.” Simulations in the summer of 2014 led to field tests in North Dakota and upstate New York. “At the end of the program, we developed standardized procedures that are used today by the FAA and the DoD for safely integrating UAS in the national airspace.”

Tech Center researchers also drop-tested small unmanned aircraft. “We have a 60-ft [18-m] drop tower here, and we dropped them onto several different materials. We were concerned about kinematic effects and the physics of how these aircraft fall — what’s their injury potential to humans or property? We developed thresholds for kinetic energy, and some of that data was used along with other studies to validate the FAA’s small UAS rule. I was able to put a lot of the physics-based equations that I learned in school to use, at least in some small part, in a rulemaking effort.”

The Tech Center houses flight simulators of varying fidelity. Johnson said, “A few years back, I finally got the itch to fly from the work that I was doing with helicopters as a flight test engineer, flying in the back, running test equipment and sitting in the simulator. Right before last Christmas, I finally got my private pilot’s license. I’m currently working on my instrument rating, and I want to get my commercial and multi-engine ratings, as well as a helicopter add-on. It helps, in my opinion, to be able to communicate with the pilots and build a bridge between the disciplines of engineer and pilot. My job is to research new technologies to improve the safety of manned and unmanned aircraft. To do that effectively, it helps to speak the same language.”

The FAA retired its long-serving S-76A testbed a few months ago. “Losing our helicopter really took us by surprise and hurt our research program significantly, but we remain committed to enhanced safety. We’re in discussions with Sikorsky, Leonardo and other manufacturers/operators on leasing or teaming agreements.” Johnson added, “In the meantime, we have a helicopter simulator here at the Technical Center configured as an S-76D-model. I just flew it earlier this week for one of our projects.”

Autonomous eVTOL for urban air mobility poses safety, integration and public acceptance challenges. Johnson acknowledged, “One of the biggest challenges I see for these operations are the infrastructure requirements. What do we need in terms of vertiport landing technology? How are we going to maintain separation and integrate these vehicles in the airspace with better tools for weather and communication? My personal opinion is that we’re going to begin with manned flights in helicopters first before we take the pilot completely out of the cockpit. I think you’re seeing that today with things like Uber Copter and Voom.”

The FAA Tech Center teamed with the Vertical Flight Society to host an upcoming eVTOL infrastructure workshop in March ( Cliff Johnson conceded, “I certainly would love to take one of these vehicles to an Eagles football game from Atlantic City and not have to sit in traffic going to and from the stadium in Philly. Are we going to get the scale that’s been proposed, where everything is autonomous? My personal opinion is we’re not there yet because of the infrastructure and all the other pending issues,but I definitely hope I’ll see something like this in my lifetimeand be able to work with our partners in industry to make it a reality.”