Primarily active in: Romania
Katrin Mayrhofer, INCAS Program Manager for Racer
Overseeing Romania’s National Institute for Aerospace Research “Elie Carafoli” (INCAS) contribution to Airbus’s Racer high-speed helicopter, Katrin Mayrhofer plans, monitors and coordinates technical-related tasks with government and industry players in Bucharest. She recalled, “When I left Germany and Airbus, there were voices who questioned why I would go to Romania. I think in Western Europe we didn’t pay too much attention to what is happening in Romania, to be honest. I wasn’t aware of the old and rich history Romania has in aerospace. I think Romania provides everything you need for the aerospace industry in the research environment.”
Airbus’s Racer (originally standing for the Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft), is part of the European Union’s Clean Sky 2 research initiative and aims to fly a 216 kt (400 km/h) compound helicopter with less noise and lower fuel consumption than conventional rotorcraft. Mayrhofer explained, “The Racer research project is a consortium. INCAS is responsible for the main fuselage. We have been responsible for the design, stress analysis and everything that comes with it. Then we have ROMAERO, the state-owned aerospace company who did the manufacturing and assembly. Now we are back to STRAERO, which is the private research and development company, for the static testing, the ground testing of the airframe.”
Romania’s INCAS is a Racer core-partner under Airbus Helicopters. “Within the European research joint undertaking umbrella, there is no such thing as a supplier,” noted Mayrhofer. “We are more a collaborator. The program is set up such that the coordinator — Airbus — proposed an entire range of things. INCAS is one of seven core partners for the entire project.” Mayrhofer continued, “The main fuselage, the flying part, was delivered to Airbus last year in March. We’ve now finished the four test specimens. We are conducting static testing on the upper and lower decks of the main fuselage. Then we had a fuel drop test specimen that went to Airbus. We just manufactured and assembled the hardware. The same for the fuel rig test specimen.”
Within the INCAS Racer team, Mayrhofer shares leadership. “Actually the constellation in INCAS is a little bit different from what you’re probably used to in the industry,” she said. “We are a group of people sharing different disciplines in program and project management. For example, when it comes to fully technical-related responsibilities, it’s the chief engineer Adrian Gaz. Adrian and I coordinate every technical and schedule-related thing. Then we have the administrative and legal part of it with Dr. Daniela Mocenco. We three are the key players in Racer within INCAS. Overall, the lead coordinator is Dr. Cătălin Nae,” the General Manager and CEO of INCAS.
At various stages, work on Racer involved 100 to 130 people. Mayrhofer noted, “We have a lot of projects ongoing at the Research Institute. This is how we make our living.” Other aviation and space projects are underway in Bucharest, Craiova and other locations. “Within the INCAS research establishment, we have scientists; we have researchers; we have engineers. We have ‘blue collars’ because we manufacture our own wind tunnel models, for example. Depending on the year, we have 200 to 250 employees, and we have university students who we try to grow in aerospace research and industry environments.”
INCAS — which stands for “Institutul Național de Cercetare-Dezvoltare Aerospațială” in Romanian — traces its roots to 1950, when the Applied Mechanics Institute of the Romanian Academy was established. The institute changed names and missions many times since then; however, in 1991, it was reorganized — along with the entire Romanian aeronautical industry, following the 1989 Romanian Revolution — into its current form, INCAS. The institute’s name honors the great Romanian aeronautics pioneer, Elie Carafoli (1901–1983), who served as the early institute’s founding director.
Katrin Mayrhofer grew up in the small German town of Weissenhorn in Bavaria. “My father was the assembly manager for a mechanical engineering company in the automotive sector,” she recalled. “In his rare free time, he built radio-controlled aircraft. In order to spend quality time with my father, I just got involved in the hobby. On the way, I got interested in the airplanes — building them, flying them, damaging them, repairing them. Those are some of my best childhood memories.”
Weissenhorn’s modern secondary school provided pivotal direction. “The school system then was quite different from today,” noted Mayrhofer. “At the secondary school, you had to make a choice of dedicated paths. I chose the technical-mathematical path. Besides the regular classes, the focus was on teaching mathematics, physics and chemistry, and as an elective class — I chose technical drawing.” The future research manager never received a university degree. “I had my son very early, so I did not have time to go to university. I had to get a job and make my living.”
A succession of business and technical support positions in industry ultimately led Mayrhofer to Donauwörth, Germany. “When I saw the job opening at Airbus Helicopters — at that time it was Eurocopter — I thought, ‘I can’t get any closer to aerospace technology than applying there.’ I just gave it a shot. I had the interview on a Friday in the strategic procurement department. Monday was a public holiday, and I started on Tuesday. It went that fast, and I just thought, ‘This is your chance to be where you wanted to be — grab it.’ I got plenty of opportunities in Airbus, people supporting me, training me, and I trusted them. It was a long road, but here we are.”
Mayrhofer joined Airbus in 2011. “After strategic procurement, I moved to the airplane door system center, which was making all the passenger and cargo doors for all civil Airbus airplanes. I was part of airplane door systems when the A350 first flew, so I gained a lot of knowledge and learned how to deal with high pressure.” Airbus Helicopters offered broader opportunities. “After door systems, I went to the research department, and I started as the [Donauwörth-based] assistant for our vice president of research and innovation, Tomasz Krysinski,” who is currently the VFS Chair of the Board of Directors, who was based in Marignane, France.
“Within the R&D programs, my boss at that time, Markus Feiler, approached me and said, ‘You’re totally under-challenged here. I know you’re much more interested in the technology and want to get involved.’ He and Tomasz actually pushed me forward through all national research topics. One of the international programs was Clean Sky I, the Green RotorCraft [GRC]. I was also involved in the beginning with the CityAirbus electric air taxi and also Racer. There, I got a lot of experience with all subsystems involving different people and so many companies and countries with different mentalities — cross-national and cross-discipline.”
Katrin Mayrhofer joined INCAS and the Racer Romanian consortium, RoRCraft, in July 2017. The EU research programs solicit collaborative proposals. “In the end, the best one gets the catch. For Racer, it was INCAS.” The compound helicopter integrates a transport cabin with lateral pusher propellers, double wing and faired main rotor. “Efficiency and, of course, speed are the main targets of the aircraft,” noted Mayrhofer. “The optimization for the cruise speed was one of the main targets, so the design required a lot of focus on drag reduction. We designed the aircraft [fuselage] and performed some testing along the way, especially on some critical composite parts in parallel to ensure every calculation we did was valid.”
Mayrhofer continued, “We got the load cases for the mission from Airbus. According to the load cases that needed to be tested, we designed the test program for the main fuselage. The materials are state of the art. I think the main challenge was the hybrid structure. The central longeron and side shells are fully composite. We had rivets, fasteners, also some reinforcements that are metal.”
Romania gave INCAS an experienced workforce. Mayrhofer noted, “We have quite a few aerospace companies in Romania, not just in Bucharest, also in Bacau and more locations. We try as much as possible to involve them in the research activities. The knowledge, the technologies, everything is available in Romania, and you have excellent engineers here. ROMAERO, the manufacturing partner we had on Racer, works with other companies internationally.”
Racer remains a one-off demonstrator. Mayrhofer acknowledged, “We, of course, all hope that in the end, Airbus will succeed to make a serial product out of it. I think there is a market for it, for sure when it comes to search and rescue missions, besides VIP transportation. We all know how much a life can depend on the minutes waiting for the arrival of the emergency team. I think for this mission especially, Racer is pre-destined. You have a large cabin. You have the speed. You have less vibration due to the wing.”
INCAS is pursuing other advanced programs. “We applied for the Clean Aviation program,” noted Mayrhofer. “I would love to be part of developing the hydrogen technology. The zero-emission goals from Europe are there for years, so the focus will be more on electric and hybrid flight.”
Unrelated to the research program, Mayrhofer in 2020 co-founded ELSA Industry S.R.L. in Bucharest to give Romania domestic composite capability. “My company has literally nothing to do with INCAS or Racer. It’s a free-standing composites company. There’s nothing like this existing in Romania. It’s not to compete with anyone. It’s more to have a wider range of suppliers in the country. Our wish in the future is to collaborate. We’re a startup in our very beginning, so we are not there yet.”
Katrin Mayrhofer joined VFS in 2017 and is now working to start a VFS Chapter in Romania. “I can remember one of my former colleagues was a member of the Vertical Flight Society. When he finished reading a Forum technical paper, I was the one asking to read it. My colleague said, ‘Maybe that’s hard to read because you’re not an engineer.’
I can remember I said, ‘One day I want to become a member.’ When I joined the VFS, I posted a picture and said, ‘That’s fulfilled.’”