“Sully” might have never become America’s best-known pilot, let alone a Tom Hanks movie hero, if the Airbus he flew in January 2009 had been equipped with an engine shield like the one a Pine Bluff company is developing now.
Chesley Sullenberger, the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, expertly guided his jetliner to an emergency landing in the Hudson River nearly a decade ago after hitting a flock of Canada geese while climbing away from LaGuardia Airport in New York.
His cool response after losing power in both jet engines saved all 155 people on board, but a device to prevent objects like birds or aerial drones from being ingested into jet engines might have averted the emergency altogether.
“That’s the idea,” said Wayne Duncan, CEO of Shield Aerodynamics LLC in Pine Bluff, which is developing its trademarked Bird & Drone Strike Shield. “We want to prevent the kind of emergency that made Sully famous. He was that 1-in-50,000 pilot who was able to do what he did. If it had been somebody else, somebody with less experience, it might have been a different kind of story.”
Bird strikes are costly in money and lives. Federal Aviation Administration figures suggest they’re a $400 million-a-year problem in American aviation, and have played a role in more than 200 deaths worldwide since 1988. In 1995, an Air Force Boeing E-3 Sentry jet crashed after hitting geese after takeoff at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. All 24 crew members were killed.
Duncan’s device, an aerodynamic cage of space-age polymers meant to deflect engine-killing objects away from sensitive aircraft parts, reflects an aviation dream at least 50 years old.
But Duncan says the idea never emerged much past the patent stage because earlier models lacked aerodynamic qualities or were made from inappropriate materials like wire or steel. He said the carbon fiber-reinforced polymer in his device allows “a strong, rugged core and a rubbery elastic surface that helps prevent spalling,” the breaking up of objects into damaging pieces.
Duncan, whose company is based out of Duncan Home Improvements, his family’s contracting business in Pine Bluff, says Shield Aerodynamics has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars — he’s reluctant to give a precise figure — in testing. Computerized tests will determine whether a prototype will soon be mounted onto a jet the company has secured for real-world testing.
Shield Aero took a design on paper from inventor Dennis R. Snyder, a draftsman and mechanical engineer, then engaged designers to create a two-dimensional model. A team from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock worked to turn them into a 3-D version.
Pointing to a one-eighth scale 3-D-printed model on a conference table, Duncan said Shield Aero holds patents on the design not only in the United States, but also Germany, France, Spain and Britain. Records from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office confirm that Shield Aerodynamics is the assignee on patent No. 9,234,461.
“We’ve been using third-party simulators to test our device with computerized programs that calculate air flow and the types of conditions you would face in flight,” Duncan said. “We’ve designed a prototype for a jet we have available to us for our testing. If we have good results from test runs first on the ground, then we’ll do testing in the air.”
Duncan said several jet manufacturers are eager to see the test results, “and then we can discuss designing for their jet models.”
The device, which would fit in front of the jet engine housing, will need to be customized individually for each jet model, Duncan said. “Once we get the computer simulations looking like we want, we will build a prototype full scale, then install it for a ground test. If that goes well, then we’ll test it in flight.”
The ground and air tests are likely to take place in Conway, Duncan said, noting that several FAA-designated engineers there have been watching the shield’s progress.
Duncan expects to complete testing over the next seven months. He said Shield Aerodynamics has worked with SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering program published by Dassault Systemes, and with Aerospace Structural Research Corp. of Milford, Connecticut, which specializes in computational fluid dynamics. Shield Aero is a member of the Arkansas Aerospace & Defense Alliance, a trade group, and has worked with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, Duncan said.
Potential Fuel Benefits
Computer simulations suggest that the device may provide more than a safety advantage. “We learned that as an offshoot, the vanes on the shield smooth turbulent airflow, which promises to reduce fuel consumption,” Duncan said. Further tests are needed to flesh out how great any fuel savings may be.
The patent application describes the device as an “environmental shield for a turbine engine” meant to prevent objects from entering and to “deflect solid mass energy, rather than to absorb it, eliminating additional stress on other structural members of the cowling and attachments, wing, or body of the aircraft.”
This ability could loom large as drone use grows and more planes encounter unmanned aircraft in flight, Duncan said. The company has reached out to Javid Bayandor, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Buffalo, to assess how the device might enhance safety in the drone era.
In an email to Arkansas Business, Bayandor said he specializes in safety assessments involving drone risks and is “happy to look into any ideas/concepts that promise to mitigate risks posed by UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] or other novel systems to commercial and military airspace.” He wrote that he was traveling on business, with limited internet access, and would defer further comment until he could talk to Duncan.
Duncan said he has teamed with his brother James, the CEO of Duncan Home Improvements, on previous product development projects but has been working primarily on the shield for several years. Records from the Arkansas secretary of state’s office list James Duncan as the incorporator of Shield Aerodynamics in 2012. Wayne Duncan is listed as an officer and manager.
“We’re following the winglets model [on the shield project],” Wayne Duncan said, referring to the business path of the near-vertical extensions of aircraft wings that have appeared on jet models over the past few decades. “We hope to go to jet manufacturers and design our product specifically for each particular model of their aircraft. We have manufacturers in mind to turn to for producing the product, and we want to work only with successful manufacturers who have a solid record.”
Duncan said he expects the suggested retail price on “a pair of shields for a small- to medium-size business jet” to be about $110,000. The dimensions of the device will vary by aircraft model, but the jet the company has secured for the first test has a 30-inch diameter engine, meaning the shield prototype will be about 30 inches across at its base. It will also be a close to 30 inches in length. “It’s almost a 1-to-1 ratio, and we keep getting that down so that we can shorten the length. It’s all about deflecting some of the impact from a bird or drone.”
Commercial jet engines can be much larger, of course, with a large model on a Boeing 777 measuring 128 inches in diameter. Commercial engines are also tested to ensure they can safely shut down after sucking up a bird as large as 4 pounds.
Still, a working shield could minimize hazards and costs, Duncan said, fueling a lucrative market.
“We always are looking for outside investors, and outside partners as well,” he said. “If a potential partner could manufacture something that we’d have to pay to get manufactured, or if companies with jets or hangars or aircraft centers are interested, we’d like to hear from them.”