Loudoun Avionics Company Takes Flight with New Helicopter Black Box System

For decades, commercial airliners have been equipped with technology to record data in the event of a crash, which has helped aviators better understand what can go wrong and how they can make flights safer. Until now, that technology has been virtually inaccessible for the kinds of helicopters commonly seen rushing car crash victims to hospitals or flying news broadcasters high above rush hour traffic and crime scenes.

            On Wednesday, Joe May, the founder of Electronic Instrumentation & Technology and a former state delegate who represented the 33rd House District in Richmond from 1994 to 2014, debuted a three-part alert and information collection system for helicopters weighing 12,000 pounds or less. The system includes a half-pound, 4-by-4-inch, $6,000 black box that records crash and other data, a situational awareness display that alerts pilots to unflyable conditions and a radar to keep pilots aware of their surroundings. 

The equipment will save safety-conscious helicopter pilots hundreds of thousands of dollars and a couple dozen pounds of weight. Conventional black boxes on the market cost about $250,000 and weigh about 25 pounds. May said the reduced weight is a huge deal because the fuel load already makes up a good amount of the overall weight in small helicopters.

Aside from the price and weight difference, May’s system is also the only piece of commercial aircraft technology manufactured in Loudoun County, assembled by a team of 125 employees at EIT’s headquarters adjacent to Leesburg Executive Airport.

“I guess we’ve created a nice new little industry right here in Loudoun County,” May said.

The equipment includes a Flight Operations and Data Recorder. While it can provide information in the event of a crash, Product Manager Jeffrey Byrd says it does much more to help identify system failures or abnormalities. For example, if the pilot exceeds recommended safe rotor speeds will note that data and indicate a need to take the chopper to maintenance.

The second part of the system is an Enhanced Situational Awareness Indicating Display that alerts a pilot to threatening situations, such as if the helicopter reaches a point where it’s unable to hover any longer or if it reaches its maximum air speed. Byrd said when pilots reach the limits of the helicopter’s safe performance, they’ll have both visual and audio alerts.

The last part of the system is a Radar Altimeter that alerts the pilot to surrounding obstacles, such as mountain ranges or a potentially fast-approaching ground.

While the three-piece system took May and his team only a year to design, the road to its debut this week began in 2011 when he was taking flight lessons while getting his helicopter pilot’s license.

A fixed-wing pilot for 20 years, May said he hatched the idea for the system in a state of alarm one night after practicing an auto rotation—a procedure in which a helicopter pilot flies the chopper at about 1,000 feet above the ground and moves forward at 100 knots before putting the engine to idle, sinking to the ground and then stopping the aircraft’s forward momentum at 60 feet above the ground to ease it down to a safe landing.

After stepping out of his helicopter drenched in sweat, May thought there must be a more informed way to practice auto rotations. He noted that the gauges found in most helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft, like the Cessnas seen flying in and out of Leesburg, are analog, based on five-decade-old technology and oftentimes don’t work properly.

So, May took the radar out of a Mercedes and installed it in the belly of helicopter to identify and call off altitudes during auto rotations. “The point was to try to improve the safety,” he said, noting that the system was a tremendous help when flying over the hills just west of Leesburg.

Loudoun technology innovator and former state delegate Joe May look over his Leesburg-based factory where his team of 125 employees manufacture a three-piece black box system for small helicopters. [Normal K. Styer/Loudoun Now]

May’s system remained an in-house design intended for personal use until he attended a mandatory three-day helicopter safety school in Torrance, CA when purchasing a new Robinson helicopter in 2012. There, he met the school’s chief engineer, who said that small helicopters, like the ones Robinson manufactures, were in need of reasonable flight data recorders.

Five years later, May got serious about the technology,created EIT Avionics—a separate corporate entity that is also manufacturing other devices, like an improved fuel gauge—and began the challenging work of winning Federal Aviation Administration certification for the equipment.

As of Dec. 11, the FAA has allowed May to take orders for the black box system. The company has already manufactured 40 of them—a manufacturing process May said takes only a couple hours to complete.

May said the most time-consuming aspect of the process is the documentation because the FAA requires a full history detailing the ancestry of every piece of equipment that goes into the system. But, he said, that type of regulation is something he’s used to, having produced medical electronic equipment for 40 years and been required to provide just as much documentation in that realm.

And for all the work May and his team of engineers have put into the project, he’s added two more patents to his wall, with more on the way.Currently, heholds 28 patents in areas ranging from measurement of gasoline octane rating to measurement of ultra-violet energy used in industrial applications.

Looking toward 2020 and beyond, May said his goal is to sell “quite a few” of the systems, with an even larger goal of selling the technology for helicopters weighing more than 12,000 pounds. To do that, he’ll will have to obtain a few more certifications.

For May, the notion that he has developed a piece of aviation technology that will help to improve the safety of helicopter flight is just one factor adding to his overall satisfaction. He said he’s also proud that he has developed his company with his own money and products and that his company—one of the first technology firms to open in Loudoun—is not dependent on government contracts.