A call came into the Aircrew Systems Program Office, PMA-202 and the Multi-mission Helicopter Program Office, PMA-299 (H-60) on the morning of Sept. 6 from helicopter crews flying search and rescue and relief operations in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and most of the Gulf Coast.
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two Six (HSC-26) based at Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Va., flying the MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, called saying their pilots were flying missions ranging in length from six to more than eight hours. The pilots were experiencing tingling and numbness in their arms and legs as well as severe back pain. Was there anything that Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) could do to help them?
Cmdr. Tom Wheaton, Aircrew Systems Class Desk Officer, and Cmdr. Steve Labows, Assistant Program Manager for System Engineering for the MH-60S, and other members of the two program offices took up the challenge and began coordinating the effort to determine what could be done. The H-60 crashworthy cockpit seats are not designed for high-endurance operations, they were designed to protect the aircrew during crashes and are armored to protect the pilots from small arms fire. The existing seat cushions were simply not doing the job of allowing the aircrew to effectively operate for the extended missions that have become typical of todays Navy.
"You can not just add another cushion on top of the others for the simple reason that it is not designed to fit the crashworthy seat and it could interfere with operating the flight controls," said Cmdr. Tom Wheaton. "Even seat cushions need to be flight tested and approved for use before they go to the Fleet."
Wheaton and Labows met with Mike Schultz and Vic Katilus in AIR 4.6, who work with crashworthy seat design and their associated seat cushions. Under the sponsorship of Labows, and John Cardova, Aircrew Escape & Crashworthy Systems Fleet Support Team Leader, Schultz and Katilus were already working on new ergonomic seat cushions designed to increase aircrew mission endurance through the use of advanced materials and fatigue reducing design approaches.
One of these cushions had coincidentally just completed initial flight-testing at Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two One (HX-21) located here, in an MH-60S with good results. This cushion, originally developed for the Army UH-60M, has air-filled lumbar and thigh supports that can be adjusted by the pilots in-flight to tailor the cushion to individual preference.
An important safety aspect of this cushion system is that it meets the dynamic crash requirements of the MH-60S crashworthy seat that strokes downward in a crash to protect seat occupants from vertical crash forces. It appeared to be an ideal solution for the pilots serving in the hurricane relief effort, so the team jumped into action.
The new seat cushion was cleared for use on newly built Army UH-60M helicopters and scheduled for future use in the Navy MH-60S. These new seat cushions did not have an Air-worthiness Certificate from NAVAIR for Fleet-wide use in Navy H-60 helicopters. As a result these new seat cushions were cleared for test flights only.
Rapid coordination between AIR-4.6, AIR-4.1, and the 4.0P Flight Clearance Office allowed a Fleet-wide "safe-to-fly" certificate to be issued for these Simula cushions—thereby allowing them to be used on any/all Navy H-60s.
That afternoon a conference call was made to Simula Corporation in Phoenix, Ariz., the manufacturer of the new seat cushions to see how many they had in stock. Simula Corp. employees checked their inventory and found they had a complete set of the new cushions in stock and were also able to manufacture several more sets of the cushions from the parts they had, all in less than 24 hours.
Between what they had in stock and manufactured, they were also able to pull back seat cushion sets on their way to Sikorsky. This totaled 16 sets of seat cushions that were ready for shipping by Sept. 9. Fourteen more sets of seat cushions could be delivered within a week. Now the seat cushions needed to be paid for.
The Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) War Counsel met at 9 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 9, to determine how to pay for the seat cushions. They immediately engaged Wheaton and the PMA-202 contracting team. Wheaton met with Sharyl Sheftz, Aircrew Systems Financial Manager, to create the needed funding documents. Once the funding documents were completed, they were hand carried to Lori Frame, the Aircrew Systems Contracting Specialist. By 2 p.m. that afternoon a signed contract was in place allocating $31,500 to buy and ship these new seat cushions.
The money was sent to Simula Corp. who immediately shipped the new seat cushions to NAS Pensacola, Fla., for distribution to HSC-21, 26, and 28. HSC-21 and 26 received the cushions while still supporting Hurricane Katrina relief operations.
Feedback from HSC-26s Lt. Cmdr. Michael P. "Buck" Buckley "The new seat cushions are vastly superior to the cushion they replaced and they have enabled my pilots to fly longer flights and be more focused on the mission. This has been a huge advantage during our support of JTF Katrina and I couldnt imagine flying without them."
"From start to finish, this entire process took only four days. Teamwork between several NAVAIR offices, PMA-202, PMA-299, AIR-4.0P, AIR-4.1, AIR-4.6, the NAE War Counsel, Budget and Financial Management specialists and Contracting specialists along with Simula Corp., showed our Commands agility in supporting the Fleet," said Labows.