|NRL Flight Support Detachment The Navy's Future is Now|
NRL Flight Support Detachment The Navy's Future is Now
By JOC David W. Crenshaw, USNR
NAS Patuxtent River, Maryland -- (NRL) February 9, 2002 -- While today's Navy is deeply rooted in tradition, what draws many of the men and women who serve as its heartbeat is the opportunity to work with some of the most advanced technology available. They know that one of the key elements of our success around the globe has been our commitment not just to the Navy of today, but also to the Navy of tomorrow.
However, at the Naval Research Laboratory's Flight Support Detachment, tomorrow is old news their focus is on what will come after that.
"Our basic mission is to provide heavy airborne research capability for the Naval Research Laboratory," explained Cmdr. Tommy Munns, Officer-in-Charge of the detachment, which is co-located with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) at NAS Patuxent River, Md., the hotbed for naval aviation development.
The Flight Support Detachment is just one arm of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., which has a broad program of scientific, research, technology and advanced development. With each new technology developed by the laboratory, there comes the need for practical application and development, to ensure it works as well in the fleet as it did in the laboratory. That's where the Flight Support Detachment comes in.
"When the detachment was created, there was a requirement to take projects the Laboratory was developing and put them on an airborne platform, to take heavy radars and those kinds of equipment and provide the capability to test and develop the technologies," Munns said. "It's just an amazing array of problem solving. It's development of technologies and furthering that development, and somewhere those technologies will show up in the fleet. They may go on a submarine, they may go on a surface ship, they may even go to an Army outfit they could go anywhere."
Munns related that much of the equipment used in the fleet today began its life in some part at the Flight Support Detachment. "I had a friend of mine who was stationed here at the det in '89-'91, and they were flying the inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), which was developed at the Naval Research Laboratory," Munns said. "The Flight Support Detachment had it on the aircraft and they were working it and trying to develop the technology. Today, ISAR is in the P-3 Navy, the S-3s have it, and it completely changed that platform's utilization. ISAR is the thing every fleet commander wants on every P-3."
The aircraft of choice for the FSD is the NP-3D, a variation on the P-3 Orion used throughout the fleet for submarine hunting operations. "The P-3 aircraft that we fly are large enough to carry any of a vast array of projects for different divisions, all at the same time," said Sam Kogel, FSD Projects Liaison Officer and a part of the detachment since 1986.
The NP-3D offers many modifications, ranging from its bomb-bay cavity with moveable I-beams to the gutted interior, all designed to easily facilitate testing and evaluation of any new equipment. "This is all very unique, not a standard thing you'd see in the fleet," Kogel said. "On most P-3s, you won't find anywhere to house equipment, so what happens is you have to modify the actual aircraft itself. We have pallets that we can modify all day long, to make life easy for the projects. And if you don't have the bomb-bay cavity, you have to start modifying the basic structure of the aircraft, so you start getting into a lot of costs and time, and it becomes pretty much unrealistic. If you've got a sensor that weighs 3,600 lbs. and it's 36 inches deep, you're looking at probably seven or eight hundred thousand dollars to modify a P-3 or pretty much any other aircraft you can fly, whereas for us it's relatively simple stuff.
"And we have the NAVAIR flight clearance on these all the time," he continued. "So we can make changes to the configuration of this pallet more cost effectively than you could do in a standard aircraft. If you were to get into the real world and realize how much money it costs to modify an aircraft to house a particular project, one that would come off after only a couple of weeks, it then becomes nice to have aircraft like these. This is one of the big reasons why we have so much business."
Kogel noted that while many of the projects FSD flies are short-term, some are long-term and require greater modifications to the aircraft. Of the five aircraft the FSD flies, the one that gets the most attention is NRL-442. "442 is a very unique aircraft. It has a rotodome on it and a lot of neat little features; it's a P-3 but the soul of the airplane is an E-2. That entire section of an E-2 was cut out and laid into 442."
Another one of the FSD aircraft is a full-time oceanographic platform, reflecting the expanding role of the Flight Support Detachment. "The genesis started really with the Naval Research Laboratory, but over the years that role has expanded to not only allow the Naval Research Laboratory projects to go on, but also to other Department of Defense agencies," said Munns. "We did a project for the Department of Energy, for example, and now we're working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency where we're working with the atmosphere, but it's still basically the same mission to take a large aircraft like a P-3, put developing technologies on it, and go out and test it."
Munns said that the variety of missions keep the unit quite busy. "We execute approximately 1,800 flight hours every year, and the vast majority approximately 1,500 are executed carrying projects," he said, a number especially significant because the detachment was awarded the 2000 NAVAIR Aviation Safety Award after flying mishap-free for 61,000 hours over a 39-year period. "We fly all over the world. We fly over the North Pole, we fly in the Far East, we fly in the Persian Gulf, we fly in South America. We're at 200 feet, we're at 25,000 feet, we're flying in all climates."
It's perhaps these unique missions and opportunities that not only keep repeat customers coming back to the FSD, but also crewmembers. "These aren't specialized crews," Munns said. "These are P-3 pilots and primarily P-3 aircrewmen that come in here right out of the fleet, and we have the most talented group of maintenance and project technicians anybody could ask for." The detachment is home to approximately 80 military flight personnel, including eight officers, who work in tandem with the NRL researchers, contractors and civilian employees to develop and test the equipment.
"I was here the first time for nearly years; I took a one-year unaccompanied tour, just so I could come back here again. And I've been here more than two years now," said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Cherra, Assistant Officer-in-Charge for the detachment. "I like it. It's been great flying, I've been on a lot of interesting trips, and as a detachment, you can't ask for a better bunch of people as far as maintenance, the administrative staff, everyone it's been two great tours here.
"In a regular fleet squadron, you get crew integrity by flying with the same people most flights, but here you get to meet a bunch of different folks, both scientists and aircrew. Here you also know a lot better what your schedule is going to be. We could have told you back in November what you'd be doing in the March time frame, assuming of course the scientists are able to continue with what their original project schedule was."
"It has been exciting to say the least," said Lt. Jesse Virant, who has been the FSD Operations Officer for the last year and has been with the squadron for three years. "I can't even add up all the countries I've been to with the Flight Support Detachment. As for getting to do what I joined the navy to do, it has been all that and more. I've seen the world, enjoyed some exciting missions, and this is just a great group of people to be around. I also learned some different ways of tackling issues, issues I'll probably see when I return to the operational tours. It's a really great tour, especially for a junior officer."
For many of the Sailors who serve at the FSD, returning to the operational fleet can often feel like stepping backward in time, since much of the advanced equipment they get to work with still has testing to go through before it will be ready for full use. For today though, they know they're helping to shape what the Navy will look like in the 21st century and perhaps even the 22nd century.