The brands that make up Airborne Systems, the industry leader in parachutes, practically invented the art of parachuting in the early 20th century, and now the firm is blazing a high-tech trail for a new century. William Bunch tells how the international firm is streamlining its corporate structure – and taking on outer space.
When you think of military parachutes, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the image of hundreds of paratroopers over the skies of Normandy in World War II. But the world has changed and so have the needs of both warfare and peacekeeping. And the newest products from Airborne Systems, the industry leader, are definitely not your father’s parachute.
Today, the emphasis on parachutes is on precision, whether the mission is delivering supplies or even fresh commandos to remote regions such as the mountains of Afghanistan, or bringing humanitarian relief to dangerous situations like the crisis in Darfur.
That’s why much of the focus at Airborne Systems, a globalcompany combining some of the world’s most famous names in parachuting, is concentrated on two major parachute programs; replacing the U.S. Army’s aging T-10 non-steerable parachutes and developing “smart” cargo delivery technology that can be used to re-supply troops in remote, hazardous locations. For the T-10 replacement, the company’s state-of-the-art parachute design was selected by the U.S. Army under the ATPS (Advanced Tactical Parachute System) program. A new ATPS parachute system was needed to accommodate troops carrying more equipment and heavier weights onto the battlefield. ATPS is the largest program in the history of the industry and represents a significant technological achievement in parachute design. For “smart” cargo delivery systems the U.S. Army selected Airborne Systems to provide its “FireFly” 2K product under a program known as JPADS (Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System). The U.S, Army has named this program JPADS, for Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System), and they use global positioning systems) to “steer” cargo of varying sizes and weights to the target location.
“If you look at the current military actions compared to the actions from years ago, you’ll see a change from mass troop insertions to more urban warfare type of missions as well as peace keeping roles, disaster and humanitarian relief,” explained Elizabeth Johnson, the executive vice president of sales for Airborne Systems, which is headquartered in Pennsauken, N.J. “It’s a different type of mission, which is ever-changing, and they need equipment to go along with that.”
Airborne Systems works with militaries from all over the globe, and in fact company officials aren’t able to disclose all of the countries that it does business with. The firm has several major contracts with the United States military, including a nearly $8 million contract with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command in Natick, Mass.
In addition to its considerable military work, Airborne Systems sells high-performance parachutes to the aerospace industry,as well as the United States space program. This year,Airborne Systems,long a holding firm for several well-known parachute brands, is streamlining its operations into two main business units.
Gary Calvaneso, the company’s executive vice president of marketing, said the plan is for Airborne Systems, which is now comprised of four companies, Irvin Aerospace, Irvin-GQ, Irvin Aerospace Canada, and Para-Flite, to re-align into two divisions: Airborne Systems North America, which would be based in Pennsauken, N.J., and Airborne Systems Europe, located in Llangeinor, Wales.
“We expect the realignment of our business units to positively impact product quality and customer service, and improve global communications while providing our customers with high quality,” Calvaneso said. He added that the plan should realize significant cost savings from combining administrative functions, such as accounting and purchasing, while giving a stronger focus to the sales organization. Manufacturing, he added, should be largely unaffected.
The realignment of Airborne Systems will allow the company to leverage the strengths of each of the various production facilities and share production where appropriate. It’s the next stage in a history that closely tracks the development of the parachute itself. The company’s roots go all the way back to Leslie Irvin, a legendary stunt man from the early days of Hollywood who worked with the Army to help develop parachutes shortly after World War I and took the very first free-fall jump on April 29, 1919. That same year, the Irving Air Chute Company was formed in Buffalo, N.Y.
Across the pond
Meanwhile, in England, James Gregory and Sir Raymond Quilter formed a rival company in 1932, and in the years leading up to World War II, it pioneered emergency ejection systems for pilots. Their company later became a part of Airborne Systems under the name Irvin-GQ. To this day, Airborne Systems units play a unique role in designing ejection systems.
Meanwhile, Airborne Systems continues to innovate nearly 90 years after its founding. Last year, the Pennsauken-based engineering team successfully completed a test drop with a new self-guided cargo delivery system consisting of the largest ram air parachute ever flown. The system, called the MegaFly, can carry over 26,000 pounds of cargo and is intended to deliver supplies to military units.
Company officials said these new kinds of state-of-the-art parachutes aren’t just for aging warfare, but could be particularly useful in relief missions, during disasters such as those that took place after the 2004 tsunami in South Asia as well as after hurricane Katrina here at home.
“When they have to drop a parachute and their cargo, it depletes their inventory, and that is quite a large cost,” Johnson explained. “They come to us to find lower-cost alternatives to cargo parachutes that does not deplete their military inventory so much.”
Paul Colliver, the vice president for sales and contracts, said that one of the advantages of the new GPS-guided, long-distance parachutes is that materiel and paratroopers can be dropped large distances several miles from the target, as far as 75 to 100 miles away, and from heights of 30,000 feet or more, which allows the military aircraft to elude enemy radar systems.
Among the leading products now marketed by Airborne Systems include the MC-6 system, which is being fielded to replace the U.S. Army’s MC1-1 series of steerable troop parachutes. Another high performance military parachute is the Hi Glide HAHO (High Altitude, High Opening) system, which has the highest gliding capability available and has been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps.
Altogether, the company has more than 750 employees, working at its locations in South Jersey and in Wales and Canada as well as Southern California. Because of its sensitive contracts, the company does not divulge any revenue numbers.
Right now, Airborne Systems officials are high on their new work for the U.S. space program. When the current space shuttle system is retired in 2010, NASA plans to replace the aging fleet with a number of reusable spacecraft called Orion, which is expected to carry crewmembers to the International Space Station, the Moon and beyond.
Airborne Systems, Space and Recovery Division was selected by contractor Jacobs Sverdrup for NASA to develop parachutes for the new craft. In addition, it is also working with NASA’s Langley Research Center to explore the suitability of a Landing Airbag System for the final landing attenuation for Orion.
“One of the capabilities that our Space and Recovery systems engineering team has is an SGI high speed computer, which allows our engineers to simulate small modifications of size and form to improve design performance without the unnecessary high cost and time consumption of field product testing,” said Calvaneso. “It’s very impressive to see: you can look at the airflow patterns around the parachute canopy and how the porosity of the material effects the performance. We can also provide finite element analysis for metal parts, fabric structures and various form designs; it’s really quite interesting.”
Indeed, it’s hard to know which is more amazing – the distances that Airborne Systems’ newest generation of parachutes can do, or the how far the company has come over 88 years.