The Van Horn Way
In aeronautical engineering, success can often be based on failure — that ability to learn from one’s mistakes and move forward in a new direction. Non-linear thinking is often part of this and can solve big problems, but in the bureaucracy of many large corporations, that way of doing things can take an exponential amount of time and leave the journey from concept to testable product mired in red tape and conflicting opinions.
Upon meeting and talking with engineers Jim Van Horn and Dean Rosenlof of Van Horn Aviation in Tempe, Ariz., however, one could quite easily draw a link from them to a different period of time, when companies of all sizes were able to be more flexible and adaptable.
The Right Process
Van Horn Aviation (VHA) was created in 2001 a few years after Van Horn left McDonnell Douglas. “We formed as a consulting company in 2001, but Dean and I were working together as consultants as far back as 1995,” said Van Horn.
In what would become a hallmark of the company, some of VHA’s initial mistakes would lead to key future successes. “When it came to production and design,” said Van Horn, “we initially focused on developing metallic blades, but ended up at odds with Bell Helicopter, which led Dean and I to reassess our situation — if the nature of what we were doing was going to be seen as an irritant to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], we needed to change our thinking.”
Ultimately, what VHA needed to do was make sure the projects it was developing were unlike anything currently available. Until then, however, it focused on metal blades from “legacy fleets.” Much of the blade design in these legacy fleets were very dated 1960s technology, but as these aircraft maintained a strong following, Van Horn and Rosenlof felt they deserved some updating.
The innovation that addressed VHA’s need to provide unique solutions with its desire to update the blade technology of the legacy fleets, came in the form of composite improvements. This became the company’s business model — and it all began with tail rotor blades. “Unlike some acquaintances of ours, who felt that the tail rotor blades were a bit beneath them due to size and less profitability,” said Van Horn, “we realized that we needed to learn how to design and build as well as tool and test for composite [tail rotor] blades.”
VHA began with the UH-1H tail rotor, and its mistakes there ended up giving the company more insights than an initial success ever could have. During its first tests, VHA immediately learned that adjustments and changes needed to be made: control loads were too high, requiring blade chord-length adjustments; chord-bending loads were also too high, resulting in the need for changes in the ply orientation of the composites. “One of the features of composite materials is that you can orient the fibers in directions that satisfy the stiffness and strength requirements for the dynamics that you need,” said Rosenlof. “You can’t modify aluminum, the only way to make an aluminum component stronger is to change its thickness, whereas with composites we are able to alter its character and achieve less flex and more strength in some areas where it’s required, and more flex in other areas on the same blade simply by varying ply orientation.”
These changes allowed Van Horn and Rosenlof to learn important aspects in the UH-1H tail rotor design through extensive testing involving a wide range of control maneuvers and control inputs. These lessons learned carried VHA into its Bell 206 tail rotor blade prototype, and to its adoption of an airfoil design referred to as “laminar flow” — originally a patent-expired joint design between NASA and the United States Army that is actually considerably superior to the original blade design: it stalls at a higher lift coefficient than the OEM airfoil, with greatly reduced drag due to its shape, along with significantly reduced operating noise levels. (One of the huge attractions for operators of legacy fleet aircraft is also that VHA’s composite blades have double the lifespan of the OEM tail rotor blade, from 2,500 to 5,000 hours.)
With Van Horn and Rosenlof’s experiences on the UH-1H design behind them, the 206 prototype tested highly successfully early on, and received supplemental type certification in 2010; 500 sets of these blades are currently in operation.
Those early, progressively shorter learning curves enabled VHA to move on to the development of the company’s highly anticipated MD 500 main rotor blades. “We have taken the same approach into the design of the MD blades, and we’re now in our third generation of testing,” said Rosenlof.
Added Van Horn, “We find that it’s easier for us to get close and test [the design], and then redo it, as opposed to analyzing it for years attempting to get a 100 percent solution, which will never occur in rotor blades.” He further added, “You can always make changes, so we’re not going to waste six months, or several years, along with millions of dollars doing unending analysis that is in itself fraught with problems.”
When it comes to prototyping, Rosenlof echoed Van Horn’s design and testing stance, “We make our best effort based on our extensive experience, and we apply it; and when problems arise, we fix them and test it again.”
For Van Horn and Rosenlof, this is clearly a recipe for success that has served them well. And, it’s a process born from their individual career experiences.
Van Horn is armed with the knowledge of how things are done within large companies, allowing him to modify VHA’s approach. “This is the beauty of my relationship with Dean, because I’ve come from the big corporate environment and made the big company mistakes, with protracted bidding issues and unending analysis; and then things don’t work and the blame game ensues.” In turn, he sees Rosenlof’s background as providing its own equally distinct advantage: “I come from an environment of ‘You can’t do that,’ whereas Dean comes from an environment of, ‘I’ll do whatever I want!’ ”
This is the driving force behind the duo’s desire to keep VHA free of the corporate mentality; to ensure it’s always open to new ideas and has the kind of perpetual forward movement that has resulted in the company’s highly successful designs to date.
More than just their personalities, though, much of this tenacity also comes from necessity. Said Rosenlof, “We had to do it . . . with all of the time and investment, and having people expecting the product, your reputation is on the line, you have to deliver — it’s about solutions.” Failure is not an option.
Fortunately, the two men enjoy this process. “Every day that is more successful than the previous is exciting and leads us in the right direction,” said Rosenlof enthusiastically. In fact, he seems unable to rest on past achievements, even if he wanted to. “Many of the manufacturers don’t like the process of testing, but we thrive on the challenges it presents and aren’t afraid to fail in order to move forward. In flight test[ing], you have to expect the unexpected. Everyone has heard the term ‘Déjŕ vu,’ something you’ve seen before. . . . We use the term ‘Vuja De,’ where you see something unexpected take place, and [then say to yourself] ‘Well, wasn’t that interesting? Maybe we should fix that!’ ”
The Right Control
Of course, to produce a successful product, one also needs quality control. One way to achieve that is through managing outside vendors. Or in the case of VHA, by eliminating them.
“The more we do in-house,” said Rosenlof, “the more control we have. If we make the abrasion strips and machine all of the components, we don’t have to rely on vendors, and as volume increases, we’ll simply acquire or make the required tools and get the manpower to move forward.”
In this way, VHA also deals directly with raw material suppliers, ensuring quality and availability there, as well.
Proof of VHA’s words was on full display during my visit, as the company had, during a stretch of 48 business hours, procured and installed a gantry mill, which it then began using to make the tooling masters for its production runs. “We’ve made aluminum tools before, but never composite ones, and we prefer to fabricate our own rather than wait for a vendor to do it,” said Rosenlof.
It is the same methodology with all of VHA’s fatigue and non-destructive-inspection testing equipment and autoclave machines: when there is a need, it gets filled. And, in the near future, the industry standard “coupon” structural testing electronic lab equipment will be brought in-house, allowing it to expedite the quality control process even further.
The Right Team
One area where VHA is not flexible is in the staffing of its operation. “We’ve come to realize that the people we’ve elected to interview must first have the skill sets that are applicable to the job description, otherwise they’ll never get through the door,” said Van Horn. “Then, the preponderance of the interview goes directly to personality, motivation, mindset and attention to detail, [along] with a desire to work in aviation . . . that’s what we find important.”
He continued: “One thing we won’t let happen in this company is for a mistake to be made and not brought to our attention . . . . That’s where the employee mindset comes in . . . are you disciplined with an attention to detail?” In VHA’s cleanroom, for instance, as assembly takes place, precision dictates that tasks must be performed in an exacting manner by a team of technicians. It isn’t a stream of consciousness operation, but a mandated series of choreographed movements that ensure perfection, complete synergy, and thus requires the right state of mind.
“We’ve had guys show up with 20 years of experience, but they lacked the mindset, and we wouldn’t even consider them,” said Van Horn. “We just have no place in our company for someone who isn’t intellectually inquisitive, or doesn’t pull his share; that just leads to a corrosive environment.” At the same time, Van Horn and Rosenlof make sure the team is happy and looked after, and encourage employee input.
The Right Plan
For VHA, its upcoming five-year plan should initiate a great period of discovery and achievement, and if it’s anything like the past five years, the company could leave quite a mark on the aviation industry.
Currently, VHA has its Bell 206 Series and UH-1 Series tail rotors in full production, with the MD 530F main rotor blade nearing testing completion. MD 500E main rotor blades will follow shortly after certification of the 530F rotor blades. The Bell 206L and 206B main rotor prototypes, meanwhile, will soon begin testing, while development of the Bell 212 and 412 tail rotor programs continues to progress. “Obviously, people are anticipating the MD 500 tail rotor, as well, [but] that’s two years from beginning development,” revealed Rosenlof. The Sikorsky S-300 and Bell OH-58 main rotors are among the other new products on the horizon.
VHA only moved into its near-24,000-square-foot headquarters two years ago, but is planning further expansion to accommodate these new initiatives. First, the facility is set to double in size for the MD 500 main rotor manufacturing program, which will be on line by the second quarter of 2014. Following that will be the start of a 56,000-square-foot expansion to accommodate the company’s projected full production line. As an added bonus for the staff, there will be a 165-foot (50-meter), two-lane, indoor gun range. And, the plans also specify the creation of a heliport. “After all, we are a helicopter company,” said Rosenlof.
To celebrate the company’s success and show their people how much they are appreciated, Van Horn and Rosenlof took their entire staff to Las Vegas, Nev., in March to experience the industry’s biggest showcase, Heli-Expo. “We’re not so big that the staff doesn’t see the blades being shipped out the door; and they can all be proud of having a part in the end product,” said Rosenlof with a smile.
In the end, Van Horn Aviation follows a tradition of innovation and creative individuality that is a hallmark of helicopter aviation. “You can’t be afraid of failure or to tackle something you don’t know,” stated Van Horn, “because for the guys out there who do know it, there was a time when they didn’t, and they had to learn it. That’s the way we approach everything we do.”
Jason Colquhoun worked in photography in New York for seven years before becoming an ag helicopter pilot. He now resides with his wife, Lorie, and son, Grant, in peaceful Southern California.
Source: By Jason Colquhoun | Vertical Mag News - 21 April 2013
Photo: The US Van Horn Aviation MD 500 Special test Helicopter (Photos by Jason Colquhoun and Kim Rosenlof)