Fighter jets may have started out as little more than giant engines with a bit of space for a pilot to ride on top, but the latest generation relies as much on information technology as it does on kerosene fuel.

“The sensors on these aircraft have become so sophisticated that the amount of information available to the pilot is huge,” Richard Ackerman, vice president of Business Development for L-3 Electronic Systems (L-3 ES), said. “The combat effectiveness of aircraft like the F/A-18 is now driven very much by the adequacy of these sensors, which allow you to understand what’s around you, and then portray that information for the pilot.”

L-3 ES, a Canadian subsidiary of New York-based L-3 Communications, has been in the business of portraying information for pilots for more than 45 years. Employing some 650 engineers, researchers and technicians at facilities in Toronto and Halifax, the firm provides design, logistics, manufacturing and repair services, for everything from active suspension systems for ground vehicles to maintenance of complex electronic systems in a variety of military aircraft.

In January, L-3 ES held a ceremony to celebrate the launch of a new facility in Toronto that will produce cockpit display systems for Canadian and Australian F/A-18 Hornet aircraft as part of a CAN$105 million program for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (St. Louis, MO).

Ackerman and others have hailed the contract, which runs to the end of 2008, as a significant step forward for Canada’s aerospace industry.

“It’s very much a fulfillment of a longstanding strategy,” Ackerman said. “It takes our products business, which is generally export focused, and fuses it with our domestic market, which we service with weapons systems management support or integrated systems for the navy and air force. It’s nice to be able to develop products and deliver them to your marketplace, and to show to the rest of the world that Canadians can produce world-class products.”

Ackerman added that the satisfaction of the project coming in on-time and under-budget was further sweetened by overcoming significant logistical challenges along the way. For one thing, L-3 ES had to assemble a team that included the company’s own engineers, as well as counterparts from the Canadian Forces, the Royal Australian Air Force, Boeing, and Rockwell-Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA), which has developed much of the original cockpit hardware.

“Together, we came up with a display suite that not only is state of the art in terms of performance, but was relatively low risk,” Ackerman said. “Its development relied on existing building blocks, which allowed us to do it in a time frame that didn’t threaten the overall project schedule. That overall program management, and the integration of all these features, was really a tremendous accomplishment.”

L-3 ES has worked on avionic displays since the late 1970s, producing more than 10,000 systems for a variety of military aircraft, including the F-16 Apache AH-64D, A-10 Thunderbolt II, and the EH-101 Merlin. This latest contract will see the company produce 647 F/A-18 displays as part of Australia’s Hornet Upgrade Program and Canada’s F/A-18 Incremental Modernization Project. This new equipment will help extend the working service life of the aircraft in each fleet through at least 2017.

“The partnership between government and commercial organizations from our three nations – Canada, the United States, and Australia – is an excellent example of what can be achieved when the right approach is adopted by all involved,” Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Graham Bentley told the audience at the opening of the new L-3 ES facility. “The continued success of this program is vital to both the upgrade of Australia’s primary air combat platform, the F/A-18, and to the future air defence of Australia. Having flown in an upgraded aircraft, I can attest to what an excellent capability the display system provides.”

While the new displays have benefited from the technical advances that are evident to anyone who has ever upgraded their desktop computer monitor over the past decade, the demands of a military setting go well beyond the need for sharper resolution and faster refresh time.

For instance, screens must be adapted to accommodate the use of night vision equipment, which intensifies images and passes only certain wavelengths of light. A pilot using such equipment would see only a bright ‘bloom’ on a conventional screen. In order to correct this problem, the L-3 ES team has designed two different types of backlighting systems for screens, with special frequencies compatible for night mode operation.

Moreover, the information appearing on such screens goes well beyond basic measurements such as airspeed, direction or altitude. Among other things, pilots have access to a digital moving map, updated with current data in real time, representing terrain and landmarks in sufficient detail to allow routing calculations.

“You can overlay that with intelligence that’s been gathered regarding the location of threats, such as radar or air defence sites,” Ackerman said. “Having that digital map in the back of the display, and then being able to distribute it around all of the displays in the cockpit, allows you to use it in a much different way than it was being used previously.”

He adds that each aircraft has its own ethernet network for handling all of this data. Of course, this considerable processing power also has to match the unique setting in which it is being placed. In the past, aircraft manufacturers have discovered inadvertently that in spite of their best R&D efforts, they have missed some simple shortcomings such as angling a canopy in such away as to produce a blinding glare in a pilot’s eyes.

For that reason, L-3 ES has designed its display system to be integrated specifically into the F/A-18 platform. Rather than building units to fit into some appropriately sized slot in the cockpit – as automobile manufacturers do for in-car stereo equipment – the company created a unique physical and electronic architecture for the aircraft interior.

“We don’t develop a standard display and offer it by way of a catalogue,” says Ackerman. “We seek to understand fully the customer’s particular needs – in this case the needs of the F/A-18 aircraft – and then develop a display that is very closely matched to that particular application. The layers of coordination were quite extensive, and required very good relationship-building between all of the parties involved.”

This has enabled L-3 ES to offer goods and services of a calibre that can be marketed internationally, while continuing to help the Department of National Defence meet its domestic mandate, Ackerman said.

“It’s the combination of those two things that makes a successful Canadian aerospace and defence company,” Ackerman said.