With the Bush Administration’s budget for the war in Iraq reaching more than $100 billion, any cost cutting measure is celebrated. So, when the window film industry helped the Army cut as much as $5 million a year on helicopter windshields, the story was picked up in newspapers and magazines across the country (see Window Film January/February, page 40).
While this should be a cause for celebration in the industry, instead, it’s turned into an ugly dispute. The media coverage gave Pro-Tint in Kannapolis, N.C., the company that developed the “tear-off” film for NASCAR cars, credit for developing the product.
However, United Protective Technologies (UPT), a developer, manufacturer and marketer of protective materials for military and private sector firms in Mint Hill, N.C., claims that it actually developed the film and says it only used Pro-Tint as a consultant. UPT now has the contract to provide film to the Army.
“I’ve read these articles that make this whole effort look like it was worked by Pro-Tint with some level of support by UPT,” said Brent Barbee, a director at UPT. “This is completely in error.”
On the other hand Steve Fricker, owner of Pro-Tint, feels abandoned by UPT, a company with which he says he was once a partner. He not only accuses UPT of using him for his film experience, but also of trying to steal an employee.
“They [UPT] came to us wanting to pitch this to the military,” he said.
“They [UPT] used me for my expertise.”
At every step of the development process Pro-Tint and UPT tell slightly different stories. Sadly, the truth will probably only come out in litigation. Fortunately, by that time, the Army will have reaped the rewards of window film of its many vehicles.
A Sandy Problem
At this rate the Army was quickly going through its Blackhawk windshields, which cost about $5,000 each. So it decided to seriously pursue an idea that two Virginia National Guard maintenance sergeants first had. After they noticed that their unit had to replace 80 percent of its helicopters’ windshields during training in the deserts of California, Sgt. Mike Mullen and Sgt. 1st Class Paul Kagi thought the tear-away films that were used to protect the windshields of their favorite racers would be useful on the Army’s helicopters.
“Both of us had been to the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin,” Kagi said. “We took brand new helicopters out there. When they came back, we were having to replace windshields because they were so pitted from operating in that sandy environment. When [Sgt. Mullen] approached me saying that we could use films on helicopters, I thought it was a good idea.”
After Kagi submitted the paperwork for the idea (for which he hopes to earn $25,000), the Army tried to track down someone to provide film for it. This is where the situation gets hazy. Media reports and Fricker suggest the service tried to contact him.
“We were contacted by numerous people with military,” Fricker said. “They were all trying to figure out how they could use our product on their helicopters. But we didn’t have any experience in dealing with the government either. So it was difficult for us to know what to pursue.”
So, Fricker says, he partnered with UPT when it came calling.
“We turned over our resources to them to act as partners and in a sales capacity,” he said. “They would find the sales contacts. I was involved in every meeting and brief that they did. I did presentations to the military with them. It helped them for the past three years.”
Barbee claims the Army contacted UPT, which then found Fricker as a consultant.
“The initial goal of this project when we contacted Pro-Tint three years ago, was to basically transfer use of their NASCAR film over to use on helicopters in a partnership situation,” Barbee said.
A Need Defined
“When we started pursuing the protective layer for the helicopters, it became evident that we couldn’t use the tear off film because they [the Army] didn’t want something that would come off easily,” Fricker said.
At this point, UPT says it started looking for other dealers to help solve the problems.
“After the discovery of many deficiencies in their product for this application, UPT pursued the effort alone with Pro-Tint in a limited role as an ‘advisory position’ based on their experience with the application technique,” Barbee said. “Other window tinters were also called upon and have contributed to the final product.”
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) partnered with the The Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center; Engineering Directorate; Reliability, Availability, Maintain-ability and System Test Division to do the actual testing. The testing uncovered one real problem: the film’s electrical conductivity had the potential to wreak havoc with the aircraft.
“Static electricity is not good around aircraft or weapons systems,” Bowie said. “We work to eliminate it. The film would not dissipate the charge when it was charged with static electricity during testing.”
To solve this problem, Fricker says he turned to CPFilms, the Martinsville, Va.-based manufacturer of the film. In doing this, he says he introduced UPT to CPFilms.
“We needed to add a conductive coating that would help dissipate the static charge into the air frame itself,” Fricker said. “We went to CPFilms and they came up with a solution and a specialized coating. They gave us film samples and we resubmitted the samples for testing and [they] passed the test. The whole idea was a spin-off of what we had done for NASCAR. We just had to take the product and fine tune it for their application.”
Barbee won’t comment on who the manufacturer he worked with was but did say that his team of engineers worked with a manufacturer to fix the issues with the film. He also said he has a five-year deal with the manufacturer and has patents pending on several aspects of the process. (CPFilms confirmed that it’s producing the film for the Blackhawk windshields. It declined comment of the other aspects of this story.)
“We don’t have film expertise by any means,” Barbee said. “But we do have very good engineering people and when it came to some issues with the hardcoat and surface conductivity, those were the kinds of things that we could address and really come up with some good answers on. We spent a lot of time working on it in house and we worked with our film manufacturer on it.”
Regardless of who is right, the revamped film fit the Army’s needs.
“The film worked very well at protecting helicopter windshields in a dusty, sandy environment, much like some of the areas the Army is currently operating in today,” Bowie said.
Now, the Army has a film that will last three to six months on a helicopter windshield, depending upon the severity of the climate the helicopter is in and the UV degradation it experiences.
When the film needs to be replaced, the Army will be able to pull out film kits for the windshields. While the service says it will cost more than the $100 per kit that has been published, it isn’t quite sure how much more. There’s no doubt it will be a lot less than the $5,000 for windshield.
“We are not willing to say what the cost of the kits are at this time since the final design is still being developed and will undergo changes as experience is gained with the product,” Bowie said.
Teaching the Army
However, the Army gives Fricker credit for training their trainer (Bowie).
“Pro Tint has trained the trainer, Ken Bowie,” Michael Abrams, a public affairs officer for the service. “[Bowie] was trained to install the film and will be training soldiers during fielding of the film.”
Fricker confirms that this is the case.
“I coordinated some different demonstrations of the product,” Fricker said. “We filmed installation videos and put the tool kits together. The piece of film that they get is already cut to the shape of the window and is already heat formed. They’re going to put it on to make sure they don’t have to trim any corners or edges, take it back off, clean the window, take the liner off, position it on the window and squeegee it on.”
The film will be a lot easier for the soldiers to install in the Blackhawks than the windshield’s are, according to Bowie.
“When they’re sent out, they’re in three pieces,” Fricker said. “You have the co-pilot side, the pilot side, and the center window.”
Barbee contradicts this.
“UPT’s role in this project is as the prime contractor,” Barbee said. “We have chosen to not use Pro-Tint in any capacity at his time. We are currently cutting, forming, and packaging this product with much success in our Charlotte facility.”
An Emerging Market
Fricker says the military has spoken to him about developing film for the Chinook and Apache helicopters.
“What we’ve developed is going to save them thousands and thousands of dollars,” Fricker said. “I anticipate they’re going to want to use it on more and more aircraft since they’ll save money and it will help their equipment last longer.”
“The convoys are going fast and sticking close together as they can,” Kagi said. “When you do that, you’re breaking windows right and left.”
To help mitigate this damage, the Army is turning to film. The Tank and Automotive Research, Develop-ment, and Engineering Center has tested and is fielding a multi-layer film for the HMMWV and other ground vehicles, according to Bowie.
Other branches and even foreign allies with similar equipment are also looking at film, Fricker said.
“We’ve talked to all branches of the military and a lot of foreign governments,” he said. “Many of our allies use the same equipment. They’ve been curious to keep up-to-date with what’s happening. Things are moving forward to get some other countries on board.”
Fricker hopes to add more business, but he doesn’t quite know how much more income the military will add to the $1.4 million he had in sales last year.
“We’re not getting our hopes up too high,” he said. “It’s not something we counted on, but it has potential to far outdoing anything that we’ve done to this point.”
Until the dispute is settled with UPT, it’s hard to know who will be benefiting from all this Army business. What is known is that the United States military and those of its allies now are aware of film. So, regardless of what happens with UPT and Pro-Tint, the industry and the military will benefit.