How Multi-Mission Aircraft Become Mission Capable

Have you ever thought about how specialized equipment and systems are integrated into Multi-Mission Aircraft. Patrick Ryan walks you through the ‘Turn-Key’ world of what makes a GA or Transport aircraft a Multi-Mission Aircraft.

Patrick Ryan  |  25th February 2021
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Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan

Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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An aerial surveillance camera attached to an aircraft nose cone


How do multi-mission kit and systems find their way on-board an aircraft to make it mission capable? Following, we'll concentrate on what aircraft modifications and alterations are, and the ‘Nuts & Bolts’ of converting a basic airframe into an Aerial Work capable platform...

From a broad view, aircraft integration, alteration, and modifications change a baseline aircraft's physical characteristics. It is accomplished by changing the original aircraft production specifications by altering items already integrated or incorporating new components/capabilities to an established platform.

In Particular, modifications to an aircraft come in two forms: those that add new equipment or features to the aircraft (referred to as alterations or modifications) and those accomplished to re-establish the aircraft's original strength and integrity of damaged areas (referred to as repairs).

For this article, we'll focus on the first form (integration, alterations and modifications) regarding who modifies these aircraft, the types of technical disciplines required to make it happen, and the standard types of modifications you'll see performed on Multi-Mission aircraft.

Who modifies and integrates Multi-Mission aircraft?

In the world of aviation and aerospace, there are ‘Makers’, and then there are ‘Modifiers’, or sometimes they're ‘Both’. In general, the ‘Makers’ are those who design and manufacture the original aircraft or specialised system and component, i.e., referred to as Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or Original Design Manufacturer (ODM). An illustration of these types of Multi- Mission OEMs and ODMs and their products are:

  • Cessna Aircraft Company – Single-engine C-172, single-engine C-208 Caravan
  • Daher Kodiak – Twin-engine Kodiak Series II
  • Vulcanair – Twin-engine P68 Observer 2, twin-engine A-Viator
  • Diamond Aircraft Industry – Single-engine DA-20 Katana, twin-engine DA-42 Twin Star
  • Tecnam Aircraft – Twin-engine P2012 SMP, single-engine P2010
  • Textron/Beechcraft – Twin-engine King Air 360
  • Cirrus Aircraft – Single-engine SR20 and SR22
  • Britten Norman – Twin -engine Islander and Defender 4000, and
  • Many more.

The ‘Modifiers’ are those organizations or companies that modify, alter, or integrate aircraft into special-purpose platforms. These firms are usually certified Maintenance and Repair Organisations (MRO), Design Organisations, or Production Organisations with a business model of providing ‘Turn-Key’ multi-mission modification solutions. For instance, converting a DC-10 in to an Aerial Firefighting EWater BomberD, outfitting an Airbus EC-135 into a Medevac platform, etc.

The type of Modifiers ranges from Tier-1 large corporations to Tier-3 small firms. As an example, here are a few of the companies that focus on providing ‘Turn-Key’ Multi-Mission aircraft solutions:

  • BAE Systems - United Kingdom
  • Airborne Technologies GmbH - Austria
  • Nova Systems Europe - United Kingdom
  • Field Aviation - Canada/USA
  • and many more

What is the ‘Nuts & Bolts’ of aircraft integration & modification?

Looking under the cowling of the Aerial Work Multi-Mission aircraft integration and modification sector, the ‘Nuts & Bolts’ or functions of physically altering or modifying an aircraft consist of several technical disciplines.

The overall or standard services and efforts Modifiers provide range from defining requirements to troubleshooting already fielded Multi-Mission technical aircraft systems. However, the specific or compartmentalized functions or services modifiers provide are:

Program Management: This function or service consists of conducting analysis, managing the development of requirements, tracking milestones, and overseeing an aircraft's modification life cycle progression. This effort could include everything from determining the design specification, logistics, document development, and supporting the required work certification.

Engineering: Engineering involves structural, avionic, and system engineering at every stage of the integration process.

Specifically, engineers, technologists, designers/drafts-persons, and technical specialists are engaged with specifying, modeling, assembling, testing, and certifying all aspects of an aircraft modification from a design perspective.

Manufacturing – Fabrication: Because some multi-mission requirements are unique, some modifications and alterations require a One-Off or distinctive component or part made from scratch, i.e., based on original designs or reversed engineered.

The manufacturing or fabrication function or service consists of converting raw material into a finished product like a composite Radar dome (manufacturing) or combining typically standardized parts by bending, drilling, and connecting into a completed unit like a special utility cargo hatch or remote-sensor equipment rack (fabrication).

An airplane mechanic installs a new multi-mission interior to turboprop

Installation: Once the planning, engineering, and parts are ready, installing everything involves adapting or making ready to use the specialized multi-mission component. The process could be as easy as plugging in a part (‘Plug & Play’) to significantly modifying or altering the original aircraft interior and exterior design and function.

Flight Testing: When everything is complete, it's time to see if the installation and modification work. Flight testing is at the core of what Modifiers must do to validate a modified aircraft's operation and performance and evaluate new and modified aircraft systems' functionality during flight. This event allows identifying and fixing any design problems, plus verifying and documenting the vehicle capabilities for airworthiness certification and customer acceptance.

Other ‘Nuts & Bolts’: In addition to program management, engineering, manufacturing-fabrication, installation, and flight testing, there are other notable services or functions Modifiers might provide:

  • Kit manufacturing – This service consists of designing unique parts or components for a customer. These components are then manufactured or fabricated, packaged as installation kits, and delivered directly to the customer.
  • Documentation – Pertaining to required regulatory documentation associated with any modification or installation, certified Modifiers will produce mandated documents that pertain to flight, maintenance, and service operations associated with any alteration or change, e.g., Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA), and more.
  • Training – Depending on the modification or installation, training might be required for both the aircraft maintenance personnel and the flight crew to correctly maintain and operate the new systems and components. Many Modifiers provide such training services as part of the overall installation contract.

What are the different types of Multi-Mission Aircraft Integration & Modifications?

When it comes to types of aircraft integration, alteration, and modification efforts, the answer is — almost anything that you want to add, change, or integrate into an aircraft that is airworthy at the end of the process. 

However, regarding Aerial Work aviation and Multi-Mission aircraft, there are common types of integration and modification efforts regularly accomplished to change a GA or Transport aircraft into a Multi-Mission platform.

In general, the kinds of integration and modification projects can range from integrating high-end specialized multi-million dollar Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) systems, Medevac equipment to a simple, inexpensive Aerial Advertisement banner towing hook. However, the typical type of work Modifiers are asked to accomplish in the Multi-Mission aircraft sector are:

  • Avionics modernization & standardization upgrades - ADS-B, RVSM-required systems, etc.
  • Aircraft modifications to increase utility – Range extension, Hush-Kits, aerodynamic enhancements, specialized utility doors, etc.
  • Aerial Surveying and Mapping sensor installations - Digital mapping cameras, LiDAR sensors, airborne GPS, inertial measurement systems, sensor access hatches or ports, etc.
  • Aeromedical installations and palletization – Specialized patient stretchers, medical equipment, rescue host, etc.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems installations – EO/IR gimbals, sensor extension/retraction lifts, mission management systems, data links, electronic warfare measures, and countermeasures systems, etc.
  • Aerial Firefighting capabilities installations - Retardant Aerial Delivery Systems, rotor-wing water bucket sling configurations, etc.
  • High-speed data link integration – Simplex, Half- Duplex, and Full-Duplex communication systems.
  • Police Aviation capabilities integration – Augmented Reality Mission Management systems, searchlights, Tactical Flight Officer workstations, etc.
  • General interior modifications and reconfiguration – Optimized aircrew seating/operator positions, specialized equipment racks, dedicated storage compartments, etc.

Summary

Without a doubt, the Aerial Work aviation sector could not do its job if it were not for the ‘Makers’ and 'Modifiers' of the aviation world. Because 90% of all aircraft are not built explicitly for every type of Multi- Mission operation, the Modifiers of the world are critical in turning a GA or transport (and sometimes an old warbird) aircraft into a viable, effective, and safe platform.

Because Aerial Work aviation has a critical role in both aviation and society, the current and future need to modify, upgrade, and maintain Multi-Mission aircraft will continue. Even in COVID-19, many firms have full work-order books and forecast many more projects will come.

Again, a Multi-Mission aircraft is not special because of what systems and components it flies with, but more importantly, how they are technically integrated, certified, and maintained to support their specific Aerial Work mission.

Next time you observe a Police helicopter, Aerial Fire Fighting ‘Water Bomber’, or even an Aerial Mapping drone, think of those companies, engineers, and technicians who have ‘The Right Stuff’ to turn a basic aircraft into a workhorse for both the aviation sector and humanity to benefit.

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