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Air Force testing XCub as low-level rescue aircraft

The Air Combat Command of the U.S. Air Force has selected the CubCrafters XCub as “the safest and most capable commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft” for initial flight testing of its Low Altitude Sensing Helmet (LASH) system.

Components of the LASH technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory include a flight helmet, thermal camera, night-vision goggles, and other elements in a kit that can be quickly installed in a general aviation aircraft “to equip pilots for low-level, low-speed, nighttime flight—something that is essential for personnel recovery and other ‘featherweight airlift’ special missions,” said Dr. Darrel G. Hopper of the 711th Human Performance Wing, according to a news release from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Hopper is the leader of the demonstration project, known as Project Lysander. Its goal is to develop a method for “rescuing isolated personnel in both heavily defended and undefended airspace. A critical element of the project was determined to be a carry-on kit that could allow such operations.”

The LASH system’s role is to “provide pilots with sensory situational awareness required to fly safely, at night, at extremely low altitudes and slow airspeeds” to accomplish the missions.

The researchers believe the XCub, the Part 23-certified top-of-the-line aircraft of Yakima, Washington-based CubCrafters, has the right stuff to give a small aircraft a chance to make a big impact on military personnel rescues. So, it bought one and had it ferried to its research contractor’s facility at St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in Leonardtown, Maryland, for the testing.

According to CubCrafters, a stock XCub cruises 150 mph at 75-percent power, has a range of 800 miles, and can haul a capable 1,084-pound useful load. But more to the point for rescue operations in a “denied environment,” it can land in 80 feet, and take off again in 120 feet—according to demonstrated values—and then climb out at 1,500 feet per minute. Introduced in 2016 with a 180-horsepower Lycoming O-360-C1G engine, a new edition emerged in 2019, with power boosted to 215 hp and featuring a three-blade composite constant-speed propeller.

AOPA reported at that time that the XCub also was the first standard-category airplane approved by the FAA to use non-technical standard order (non-TSO) avionics for primary flight instrumentation, as equipped with the Garmin G3X.

Beginning this spring, Air Force Research Laboratory contractors plan to fly the XCub with the LASH system aboard.

“If flight tests are successful and program objectives are achieved, the LASH system could be on track for technology transfer and possible deployment as early as 2022,” the Air Force Research Laboratory said.

Researchers believe the XCub’s capabilities could help establish other GA aircraft as integral to the highly specialized operations involving the LASH system.

“If we can demonstrate that the XCub can be flown safely at night at low speed and low altitude using the LASH night vision aids, then we can expand LASH system kit use to other types of short takeoff and landing general aviation aircraft,” Hopper said.

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