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

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite, November/December 2021

Mark Cherry, Vice President & General Manager, Boeing Vertical Lift

Heading the Vertical Lift division within Boeing Defense, Space & Security since March, Mark Cherry manages more than 5,000 people who design, manufacture and support advanced military rotorcraft. “We strive to be absolutely boring,” he offered, “just deliver on time and on schedule with everything our customers expect. There’s always drama that comes with that, whether it’s supply chain disruptions; whether its COVID; you name it. I, and my Vertical Lift management team, work to reduce anything that’s in the way of our engineers [and] our technicians doing their quality work and getting their jobs done.”

The jobs are divided mostly between the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Mesa, Arizona, complexes that deliver Apaches, Chinooks and Ospreys to US and international customers. Cherry explained, “Because we’re delivering more Apaches than Chinooks or V-22s on an annual basis, the takt or rate of line movement is faster, and that brings its own challenges to ensure just-in-time kitting and the like. But for the most part, we approach the operations part of Vertical Lift at Philly and Mesa in a similar manner.” Day-to-day operations and customer interactions also provide engineering insight to pursue new business. Cherry said, “You start with execution, but then it’s helping our customers think about what the next thing might be, whether it’s producibility, whether it’s supportability, whether it’s capability specifically as our customers are pivoting from the War on Terror to the IndoPaCom region and a peer-to-peer fight. We’re helping them think about ways vertical lift can accentuate their mission capabilities there.”

Boeing Vertical Lift is teamed with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company, on the Defiant X Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) proposed for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative. “We are a 50-50 partner on Defiant,” noted Cherry. “We have unsurpassed experience in mission systems, training, sustainment, and we’re well positioned to meet the Army’s needs in 2035 and beyond. I will also say that something we’ve been working very hard on is using the digital thread and digital capabilities there. I think that is one of the exciting things that’s happened in aerospace. It’s not the what; it’s the how.”

Learning How
Cherry was born at Loring Air Force Base in northern Maine and grew up following his father’s duty assignments to Kadena, Okinawa; Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska; and Virginia, close to the Pentagon. “I am an Air Force brat,” he noted. “My dad was 26 years in the Air Force and retired as an O-6 [Colonel] back in the early ‘90s.” Charles Cherry flew as a navigator and electronic warfare officer on B-52 bombers and RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft and ultimately served as a Joint Staff action officer in Washington, DC. “My dad had a friend who was an SR-71 pilot, so they let me, as a kid, walk around an SR-71, and I thought that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life. I got enthralled by aerospace. I was really into building models growing up. I also wanted a chance to play football and to possibly fly. I decided to go to the Air Force Academy and haven’t looked back since then.”

Cherry graduated as an officer and engineer in 1991. “I’m a mechanical engineer. I toyed around with electrical engineering but mechanical engineering seemed more intuitive to me.” He subsequently earned his Master’s degree in systems and aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and worked on the F-16 Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI) effort, the ground collision avoidance system, and early unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at what is now the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

The engineer left the Air Force and earned a Master of Business Administration from Stanford before joining Boston Consulting Group. “They help CEOs solve problems,” he explained. “Do I outsource or in-source? Do I move a plant from the United States internationally? What do I do to optimize my supply chain? That really helped me in terms of refining some business skills. I studied for my MBA, but now I was practically using those tools to solve business problems.”

An excursion into semiconductor test equipment led Cherry back to aerospace and introduced him to vertical flight. “I got hired to work for [Sikorsky VP and later President] Mick Mauer as his director of operations at Sikorsky. “I did all the capacity analysis. This is back in 2007. We were still ramping up [UH-60M] Black Hawk production. We were preparing for -53K production. I was looking at S-92 production. It was really a combination of optimizing for capacity. Then I was VP of Marine Corps systems where I was responsible for the Presidential helicopter and the CH-53K, as well as the ’53 Delta and Echo models.”

Cherry was vice president of strategy for the helicopter maker when recruited to work on broader cutting-edge technologies. “I left Sikorsky because I had an opportunity to become president and chief operating officer of Aurora Flight Sciences, which specializes in unmanned aircraft and advanced capabilities. I was really excited by autonomy and the use of autonomy by my earlier days in the Air Force.” Cherry was on hand at China Lake, California, for the first flight of Aurora’s Orion medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAS. “Any first flight is nail-biting, but going through that was really something,” he noted. “We did the Centaur aircraft where we autonomously flew the aircraft in the National Air Space, the first time that had happened.”

Aurora won the VFS 2018 Howard Hughes Award for its work on an autonomous Huey for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program. “We were able to demonstrate autonomous flight as well as resupply capability that would be advantageous to the Marine Corps,” Cherry noted. “You had the sensor capabilities — lidar, etc. — with a pilot on the loop versus in the loop. Tightening that loop and having confidence that people can get on the loop but not in the loop is probably one of the biggest breakthroughs for the community in the last 10 years.”

Equally intriguing was the XV-24A Lightning Strike hybridelectric, ducted-fan UAS, one of the first large-scale electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) designs, with a 12,000-lb (5.4-t) gross weight. “We actually flew a [325-lb (150-kg)] scaled version of Lightning Strike, and it was very successful,” observed Cherry. “The challenge was the key supplier of the 1 MW generator couldn’t get it to work the way we expected it to. I think the success of Lightning Strike was just being able to distribute that power. Unlike the classic vertical lift machine where you’re using gears and gearboxes to distribute the power from your engine, if you can do that electrically, there’s huge savings in weight. It’s a huge enabler in what is possible from a platform perspective. We were successful in the architecture that allowed for the distribution of that power.”

Boeing Breakthroughs
Aurora was acquired by Boeing in 2017, and Cherry became vice president and general manager of its advanced research and development organization. “We sold Aurora to Boeing on a Tuesday, and I started as leader of Phantom Works on that Friday. About 80% of what we do at Phantom Works is classified, but I can say [Boeing Defense CEO] Leanne Caret asked me to do two things — win new franchises and to be the Phantom Works for all of Boeing, not just focused on one domain. That’s one of the great things about Boeing — we go from seabed to space.”

Phantom Works beat competitors Lockheed and General Atomics with the MQ-25 unmanned tanker designed for the US Navy around model-based systems engineering (MBSE) and the digital thread. “Boeing first utilized the digital thread and model-based systems engineering for the T-7 trainer,” noted Cherry. “That was a prototype completely built from a digital perspective.” The engineering tools promise faster, more efficient ways to redesign systems and update changes. “We’ve already seen incredible reduction in test costs, in production costs, and the expectation is we’re going to be able to demonstrate operating and support savings as well, as those platforms move toward the sustainability portion of their life cycles.”

MBSE and the digital thread likewise promise to address what Cherry sees as the primary rotorcraft shortcoming. “It’s not really the capability. It’s how we produce. With semiconductors, it’s Moore’s Law: you double capability and halve cost every X number of months. It wasn’t until I got back into aerospace that [I saw that] there was a natural assumption of cost escalation all the time. We’re going to have to find a way to turn that curve. That’s where it goes to the use of the digital thread, and where model-based system engineering might be a way to turn the tide. We cannot continue to escalate and expect our customers to pay more and more.”

Cherry continued, “Obviously safety and quality are number one — we don’t ever want to put those at risk. But if you look at how we do sand castings and forgings and gears and how much that has not changed over the last two, three, four decades, compare that with what has happened in software and the like. We need to bring in the entire platform and capabilities with the same sort of expectation of cost improvement. We’re demonstrating some of that on our FLRAA offering, but I think there’s more to come. I think in order for that to happen, we need the entire community to step with us, not only the OEMs and the supply chain, but the airworthiness authorities. We all need to work together. They have to hit the ‘I Believe’ button on digital models to say they are true representations of what actually happens in flight test.”

Boeing has demonstrated autonomous refueling between the unmanned MQ-25 tanker and manned F-18 and F-35 fighters, and Cherry sees implications for advanced rotorcraft. “Autonomy and the ability to use aircraft autonomously is something we consider a necessary option and something all of our platforms are going to need to have in the future. We’re more closely looking at mannedunmanned teaming, how Air Launched Effects could work harmoniously with Apaches, Chinooks or other of our platforms.” Teaming is more than technology. “I think it goes more to the airworthiness community and the comfort they have. Where do we have humans — on the loop or in the loop? I think it depends on the mission.”

Mark Cherry joined VFS — then the American Helicopter Society — in 2008. He was elected to the VFS Board of Directors this past April. “I think it’s a great community to tackle common issues,” he said. “It’s also about attracting people to the community, new talent. I loved the engineering challenges like the human-powered helicopter. Those are the sorts of things that get folks excited about the community and attract the next generation of engineers. I think that’s one of the best value propositions the Society brings, and I’m excited to be part of that.”