Since the 1920s Aeronca has been at the forefront of aerospace design and innovation. From repair of parts to supplying the heat shield for NASA’S next generation of space capsules, the company knows what it is to both fly high and operate closer to earth, as Lorie Greenspan finds.
An aircraft design nicknamed “the flying Bathtub” in the 1920s didn’t exactly attest to the technological expertise at work at Aeronca. The company nonetheless was borne with a strategy to innovate beyond its competitors and while it may have earned a pecking from industry peers 80 years ago, Aeronca’s invention is nonetheless on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The mono-wing Aeronca C-2 debuted in 1929. Originally known as the Roche Original after its designer Jean A. Roche (who sold the design rights to Aeronca), the C-2 featured an unusual design with an open-pod fuselage that inspired its nickname. The Aeronca C-2 also holds the distinction of being the first aircraft to be refueled from a moving automobile. According to historic accounts, a can of gasoline was handed up from a speeding Austin to a C-2 pilot (who hooked it with a wooden cane) during a 1930 air show in California.
Also the first company to build a commercially successful light aircraft, Aeronca was incorporated by a group of businessmen in Cincinnati, Ohio on Nov. 8, 1928. It was backed by the financial and political support of the prominent Taft family: future Ohio senator and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert A. Taft was one of the firm’s directors.
The company ceased light aircraft production in 1951 following a manufacturing uptick that nearly drove it into bankruptcy. As Director of Sales and Marketing Keith Wyman explains, soon after the end of World War II Aeronca achieved a production rate of more than 50 airplanes a day that would be marketed to private individuals. The thinking was that the GIs returning from war would want to buy their own airplanes, and the company anticipated a huge demand. Needless to say, Aeronca overproduced and nearly went out of business.
SPACE AND BEYOND
But through the years, flying bathtubs and all, Aeronca had steadily established a name for itself in aerospace technology, which has enabled the company to garner many critical contracts. One of the bigger pieces of its business involves repair on exhaust systems, from which it realizes 10 percent of annual revenue. The company operates an FAA-approved repair station for exhaust systems and has designed and developed an aftermarket fan cowl door for the 737 Classic aircraft which it sells under FAA PMA (Parts Manufacturer Approval) and FAA Supplemental Type Certification. The OEM part had been made of fiberglass but had a limited life due to exposure to fuel, oil, water and hydraulic fluid. Aeronca’s aluminum product, Wyman says, “should last the life of the airframe.” Aeronca has also worked with KLM Royal Dutch airlines to establish exhaust system repair capability in that company’s facility in Amsterdam.
Perhaps the most exciting news, however, is a recent award from Lockheed Martin Space Systems for the heat shield on the new crew exploration vehicle (CEV) known as Orion for the space shuttle replacement. The new vehicle, explains Wyman, will be based on the NASA Apollo space capsule design, except bigger, to carry up to six astronauts. “The heat shield is at the bottom of the capsule and faces the heat and deflects it upon the vehicle’s re-entry,” Wyman explains.
NASA said in a press release that the initial contract is structured into separate schedules for design, development, testing and evaluation (DDT&E). The contract for the initial part of the project, known as Schedule A, is slated to run through Sept. 7, 2013. Agency officials said that initial part of the total contract would be worth $3.9 billion.
Lockheed Martin will perform the majority of the Orion vehicle engineering work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, and complete final assembly of the vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Lockheed Martin has long dominated NASA’s robotic planetary spacecraft business and now has the opportunity to do the same in human spaceflight.
The first Orion launch with humans on board is planned for no later than 2014. A human moon landing is expected to occur no later than 2020, the agency said.
NASA is still determining what portions of the Orion spacecraft will be reusable, but noted that the heat shield will be replaced after each flight.
Aeronca’s heat shield is made of titanium honeycomb sandwich panels to which Lockheed applies a coating, which hardens and burns away during re-entry. “We expect to deliver the first development parts in 2010,” Wyman says, adding that the company performed early development on heat shield technology directly through contracts with NASA in 2007/2008.
BRAZING NEW TRAILS
Located in Middletown, Ohio and a subsidiary of Magellan Aerospace USA Inc. since 1986, Aeronca employs the most advanced CAD engineering systems to build its components, responding to current trends toward less noise and lighter weight, hence a shift from stainless steel to titanium. Much of Aeronca’s titanium is supplied by Timet, Toronto, Ohio; the actual trade name is Timetal 21S.
The company’s core competency is high-temperature vacuum brazing of honeycomb structures, which are strong and light weight. In addition to Orion’s heat shield, Aeronca has also applied this technology for use on the exhaust on Airbus’ A380, which serves to quiet the engine. In simple terms, Wyman explains, “The side of the panel that sees the exhaust gas is perforated, which makes the exhaust tumble instead of moving in a straight line. A jet’s noise is caused by friction of hot exhaust gas passing through the ambient air. Perforating the skin causes air to tumble and quiets the engine.” Aeronca also supplies this technology on the exhaust systems for the Airbus A340, the Boeing 747 and 767.
“The technology was pioneered at our facility on the Boeing 747 in the early 1960s – it was their design and we developed the technology on brazing and perforating,” Wyman says. Brazing the honeycomb together makes for a high strength to weight ratio and also enables the product to handle heat and vibration extremely well. “We can braze the face sheet onto honeycomb with sheet as thin as .008 of an inch – it’s a very light structure,” Wyman says.
The same honeycomb technology is used by Aeronca in the manufacture of wings for anti-ballistic missiles for the Aegis Combat System (ACS), an advanced command and control and weapon control system that uses powerful computers and radars to track and destroy enemy targets. It is the world’s most advanced naval surface ship combat system and the first fully integrated combat system built to defend against air, surface, and subsurface threats.
The technology was proven in February 2008 when a satellite came out of orbit and was successfully shot down to prevent disaster. According to reports, the 5,000-pound satellite malfunctioned immediately after launch in December 2006, and still had a full tank of fuel. Officials thought it would likely survive re-entry and disperse potentially deadly fumes over an area the size of two football fields.
And so the technology Aeronca developed through Boeing nearly 50 years ago remains as strong today with aircraft that can fly between continents or into outer space. For a company that has had a range of firsts in the aerospace industry, Aeronca is on track to build on that legacy as it heads further into the 21st century.