AFRL develops product to provide F-16 pilots with better visibility during rainstorms
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – An Air Force Research Laboratory-developed product that repels water from aircraft transparencies will soon be available to the entire United States Air Force F-16 community. The product, called HydroSkip, addresses the issue of limited visibility caused by heavy rain, which can impair the pilot’s ability to navigate the plane and land safely.
While USAF pilots receive weather reports from operational support squadrons, unexpected conditions, like fast moving, pop-up storms, pose risks to planes in the air. In these cases, HydroSkip intends to prevent rain from pooling or remaining stagnant on the F-16 canopy, the transparent enclosure over the cockpit.
Engineers from AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate and University of Dayton Research Institute selected the formula for HydroSkip after testing about 25 different formulations under simulated conditions in the lab.
“We picked the best one that could be developed into a product the Air Force can use in the field,” says AFRL Aerospace Engineer Mike Gran. He explains that HydroSkip provides pilots with better visibility “in severe conditions since the water will just run right off of [the canopy].”
With the formula complete, AFRL transferred it to the F-16 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the unit responsible for distributing products to the broader fleet community.
Donald Willmoth, a mechanical engineer who works with the F-16 SPO, says that this case represents one of the paths used by the Air Force to transfer inventions from the lab to the field. In this instance, AFRL used engineering funding to address a problem identified by the F-16 community.
Willmoth says that once AFRL finishes evaluating a product, “it needs to come to fruition somewhere.” This involves manufacturing, sales and distribution. He explains that HydroSkip “went right to F-16s since the SPO served as the originator of the project.”
The product, which has a consistency similar to Windex, applies to the canopy like car wax. Afterward, it turns white and wipes clean after ten minutes, he says. Aircraft maintenance crews can apply HydroSkip once a month, essentially following the same process used for common polish.
While F-16 pilots at one U.S. airbase initially flight-tested HydroSkip, Willmoth said that once others learned of the product, the SPO shifted its plan going forward. Their strategy changed when multiple F-16 units expressed great interest and recommended the product’s availability throughout the Air Force.
To accommodate this level of demand, the F-16 SPO went through the process of changing the technical orders. In late July, the SPO sent a notification to all F-16 units.
“With this change, they can go ahead and order this product,” he explains. However, the quantity each unit can order will be limited until the manufacturer, TexStars, stabilizes its production levels for HydroSkip.
While the product will be available to the entire USAF F-16 fleet, three Air Force bases including one U.S. base and two outside the U.S., will test HydroSkip under certain criteria. Willmoth says that the other units that experience the majority of water pooling incidents are in Europe and the Far East.
“The plan is to fly 50 flight hours on one squadron and 60 days on the other with periodic testing to [verify] material durability,” he says.
Willmoth explains that gathering physical, quantifiable data for this product is difficult; however, the team examines reporting trends, such as instances when pilots document rain incidents and note if water pooling occurred.
“It’s not realistic to instruct [pilots] to directly fly into storms,” he says, since “obviously, they avoid these types of conditions.”
HydroSkip differs from manufacture-applied coatings since it can be field applied to the F-16 canopy throughout the fighter jet’s lifetime. Gentoo, a coating made by Luna Innovations, only applies during the transparency curing process.
These two programs, HydroSkip and Gentoo, examined two very different approaches to water pooling prevention, Willmoth explains.
Gran and Willmoth say they are excited for F-16 pilots to use HydroSkip and see first-hand how it works.