VFS Raises VLRCOE Profile to Congress

Rep. Rich McCormick (GA)The future of innovative research into vertical lift technologies was highlighted last week on Capitol Hill. In an April 19 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Tactical Air and Land Forces (TAL) subcommittee, Representative Dr. Rich McCormick (GA-6) questioned US Army officials about why funding for the Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence (VLRCOE) has remained stagnant for decades. Comprised of three multi-university teams of faculty researchers and graduate students, the VLRCOE program delivers cutting-edge research to support Department of Defense’s vertical lift priorities.

“For the last 40 years we haven’t increased that budget, and it’s how we develop the new technologies in vertical lift,” said Rep. McCormick at the April 19 hearing addressing the Army’s rotary-wing aircraft budget for fiscal year 2024. “I’d like to see it increased as I think it’s a critical component of our military lift.” (McCormick is recognized to speak at 1:04:35, and he asks the question about VLRCOEs at 1:06:55.) 

The VLRCOE program is vital to providing and maintaining the competitive edge of the rotorcraft industry in the United States. Yet, federal funding for the VLRCOE program has consistently underappreciated the contribution the Centers of Excellence make to the future of vertical flight.

The VLRCOE program is collaboratively funded on a five-year basis by the Army, Navy and NASA — with total budget dollar amount remaining at that same approximate level for the past 40 years. With just $4.5M annually, the budget for the VLRCOE program is roughly two-thirds of what it was in 1982, the first year of the program, when accounting for inflation. At the same time, the costs to universities of supporting the program have grown exponentially, while the facilities that enable this valuable research are aging and becoming outdated. The universities themselves are now contributing significant matching funds to ensure that the centers remain viable, but relying on matching funds is increasingly unsustainable as universities struggle to cap the rising costs of higher education.

In parallel with the growing relevance and importance of vertical lift technologies to defense and commerce, the mission of the VLRCOE program has expanded well beyond its initial focus. The work underway at the VLRCOE is a critical enabler of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program and of NASA’s vision for advanced air mobility (AAM) operations. The participating universities are engaged in studying a wide variety of issues, including high-speed flight; electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL); low noise; low emissions; all-weather operations; and autonomous unmanned systems, among many others.

The Army, Navy and NASA renewed the VLRCOE program in August 2021, selecting the Georgia Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland to lead three teams of institutional partners (see “VLRCOEs Renewed,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2021). In all, the VLRCOE program is comprised of 15 of the nation’s leading universities and represents institutions in a dozen states.

VFS has been advocating for additional funding for the VLRCOE program for the past several years. Specifically, VFS encourages Congress to add $10M to the Army’s budget for university and industry research centers to allow the three VLRCOE to upgrade and modernize their facilities in support of FVL. This investment will help the Army realize the goals of the FVL Strategic Plan, which calls for increased basic research to support critical vertical lift technologies.

“The VLRCOEs have provided foundational support for important advances in the US military and civil rotorcraft technology,” said Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director. “Beyond the research itself, the VLRCOEs train worldclass engineers and scientists for industry, academia and government agencies.”

For just over four decades, the Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence has served as the model of a successful program. In addition to yielding innovative breakthroughs in vertical flight, the VLRCOE program has produced generations of rotorcraft engineers and technologists. An increased investment in America’s vertical lift research and development infrastructure will help this country maintain its traditional dominance in vertical lift innovation.

“We are so thankful for Congressman McCormick for championing our next generation of vertical flight engineers and scientists,” Hirschberg added. “We hope that this hearing will be the start of making the VLRCOE program even more successful.”

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Posted April 28, 2023