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Reducing Risk for Maritime Helicopters

Research by a professor of mechanical engineering based at the University of Lincoln is informing the design of the next generation of combat ships being constructed for the Royal Navy.

Landing a helicopter on a ship in rough weather is one of the most dangerous tasks a pilot can undertake. As well as deck motion and reduced visibility, the air moving over the ship, caused by the combined effects of the ship’s forward speed and the prevailing wind, creates a strong unsteady flow field (airwake) in the lee of the superstructure. This buffets the helicopter during approach and landing.

Working with colleagues at BAE Systems, the aerodynamics laboratory of the Canadian National Research Council and the University of Liverpool, Professor Owen developed simulation facilities that are able to measure the effect of a ship’s airwake on a helicopter.

Using computer-aided drawings of the ships and advanced unsteady computational fluid dynamics, Professor Owen has been able to compute the complex airwake and then impose this flow onto a computer model of a helicopter. Using these techniques, it is possible to quantify the aerodynamic loads on the aircraft and thereby evaluate how the design of the ship’s superstructure affects the helicopter during take-off and landing.

"Warships have never been designed with the helicopter in mind, other than to put the deck at the back of the ship, which is probably the worst place to put it. The helicopter is the most potent system on the ship, but if it can't take off, it can't be used."

These techniques are now being applied to future combat ships that are currently in the design phase, and structural modifications are being made to improve the helicopter’s operational envelope.

Professor Owen and his collaborators have been commissioned by BAE Systems to apply this research to the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to apply it to unmanned air vehicle launch and recovery from ships. 

The potential impact of this research was identified in its early years by the MoD, and Professor Owen was invited by them to be a UK representative on the Aerospace Systems Group of the Technical Cooperation Programme – a body with representatives from the defence agencies of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A major part of the Group’s work is to coordinate and disseminate international research into maritime helicopter operations.

Professor Owen also represents the UK on the NATO technical working group AVT-217, which is seeking to provide ship design guidance for aircraft operations.

He collaborates with research teams in Canada and the US, and was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to travel to these countries to share his research and develop new projects.

Professor Owen’s research has been widely published. He recently received the Gold Award from the Royal Aeronautical Society for the best paper published in The Aeronautical Journal in 2012.