A Grand Rapids aeronautics company is providing pilots, planes and technicians for a key part of an in-flight laser communications research project being conducted by Notre Dame and the United States Air Force.
Northern Jet Management, which is based at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, is providing two of its Cessna Citation light business jets for about $5,000 per hour to the University of Notre Dame Center for Flow Physics and Control.
Working with the Air Force Institute of Technology, the Notre Dame researchers were awarded a five-year, $5.6 million grant from the Air Force for a research project that began in 2007 and will wrap up in 2012.
Notre Dame is studying the efficacy of a plane in flight receiving high-energy laser beams transmitting communications and data. High-energy laser beams can carry a large bandwidth of data, while conventional radio frequency bands used by aircraft are limited, according to Mark Zenk of the Center for Flow Physics and Control, operations manager for the Aero-Optics project.
Lasers offer wide-broadband, relatively inexpensive and secure point-to-point communications, which are particularly applicable in military communications. Other applications include high-speed Internet access for commercial air passengers, communication between pilots and other planes or ground stations, and video feeds from unmanned flights over battlefields or disaster areas.
The Notre Dame research center already has done more than two years of computer modeling and wind tunnel testing of an aircraft fuselage with a turret protruding about 10 inches out that receives a laser beam from another plane. The first two test flights in Grand Rapids in January checked the actual effect of the 12-inch diameter turret on the aircraft’s ability to fly.
One of the flights involved different types of maneuvers in the air, including steep turns.
“They had no problems whatsoever,” said Zenk.
He said it is possible for the Air Force to spend many millions of dollars on one test flight. The cost of flying a Cessna Citation, which is a twin-engine, eight-passenger jet, “are quite a bit less than you would have to pay for nearly anything that the U.S. Air Force or military, in general, owns and — because we’re doing it with university resources to set up the flights — that reduces the overhead to the Air Force, as well.”
“This project is saving millions of dollars, compared to the military doing the same thing with more sophisticated equipment,” said Zenk.
Zenk said the Notre Dame research team expects to be doing Grand Rapids test flights of the turret-mounted aircraft four or five times a year for the next two-and-a-half years.
Bruce Robinson, Northern Jet Management chief of maintenance, works closely with representatives from Notre Dame on the project.
“It’s exciting to be working with these talented engineers to develop an in-flight communications system that does not interfere with a plane’s ability to fly. The possibilities for both commercial and military applications are unlimited.”
Two Northern Jet Management technicians have been assigned to the research project and began building the equipment last year, according to Kevin Tessmer, the company’s safety manager. Tessmer is also one of the six Northern Jet pilots assigned to the Notre Dame project.
The technicians have had a lot of work to do refitting the aircraft for the tests.
“The technicians are installing a table and making it as rigid as possible so it does not move at all during turbulence. Then they’re installing some sensors and various computers inside the aircraft — completely transforming the inside,” said Tessmer.
Training for the test pilots started last fall. Tessmer said the training focused on formation flying, because the two aircraft have to fly in close proximity when testing the laser connection between the two. The six pilots assigned to the project have more than 38 years of experience with the company, Tessmer said. “We’ve got some highly qualified guys working on this.”
Northern Jet Management is a corporate aviation management company specializing in turnkey aircraft and flight department management, fractional aircraft ownership, on-demand executive charter service and aviation consulting services. It is the operating arm of The Company Jet, a fractional jet ownership company.
Northern Jet Management is part of Northern Air Inc., the main Fixed Base Operation (FBO) at the airport and the maintenance arm for the aircraft managed and operated by Northern Jet.