Two weeks before the first test flight of the SpacePlane Demonstrator, Mr Leo Jeoh, Airbus Helicopters' deputy vice-president, had a sinking feeling that the test might have to be scrapped.
Mr Jeoh, 35, a former RSAF flight test engineer, and his team of five had been tasked to build a harness which could be used to secure the prototype aeroplane to a helicopter.
However, in early testing, the rig did not function as conceived. This one-of-a kind aluminium harness and prototype would be connected to a 7.6m-long chain to be slung under an AS350 B3e Ecureuil helicopter.
The plan was to release the prototype when the helicopter reached 3,048m, but during the first test, the wind kept pushing against the attached payload, causing it to swing wildly.
The prototype's tailplane, or horizontal stabiliser, was not designed to stabilise the 150kg prototype with its 150kg harness, and the pilot had difficulty keeping the chopper stable.
There was no time to build a new harness and the prototype was already built to specifications.
During an overnight meeting to figure out a solution, a team member mentioned windsurfing.
That was the Eureka moment.
"Immediately, we looked at each other and said, 'Windsurfing'."
The carbon fibre mast on a windsurf would be light, yet sturdy enough to be outfitted with horizontal stabilisers, which could then be attached to the harness.
"We went to a shop to buy a mast and the woman was asking us about the type of windsurfing we were doing. We said, 'Oh no, we aren't windsurfing'."
The next step was to find horizontal stabilisers. The team bought radio-controlled planes and cut out the wings to use as stabilisers.
Mr Jeoh said the shop owner gave them strange looks as they were discussing how to saw off the wings from their brand-new aircraft.
After 48 hours of modifications, the new frame was added to the harness and taken for a second test.
The new rig worked and the prototype was stable.
Mr Jeoh took off from Seletar Airport in his helicopter and made the 45-minute journey to the barge. The hook-up of the payload went on without a hitch.
Flying with the payload to 3,000m, he had only one thing on his mind as he leaned out of his helicopter with the control box in his hands.
As he flicked the switch on the box and watched the prototype fall, he thought to himself: "l hope my harness - the one which prevents me from falling out of the helicopter - works."
This article was published on Sept 3 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.
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