MANASSAS, Va: Buzzing a runway in 200-knot low-level passes and steep, nose-up climbs, Eurocopter’s silver X3 hybrid helicopter looked like something out of a James Bond movie as it performed for the media in late July. The X3 (pronounced “X-cubed”) stopped off at Manassas Regional Airport as part of a U.S. tour that ended last Thursday at the Pentagon, where Eurocopter hopes to sell several types of helicopters based on its sleek new technology demonstrator.
“I see a bright future inside the military,” said Steve Mundt, vice president for business development for Eurocopter parent EADS North America and a retired brigadier general who once ran the Army’s aviation branch.
The X3 combines a five-bladed rotor and two propellers on stub wings to break through aerodynamic barriers that make most helicopters simply slog through the air. It’s already flown as fast as 232 knots (267 mph) using only 80 percent of its engine power, making the X3 one of the speediest rotorcraft ever. That’s one reason Mundt is so optimistic about Pentagon sales. But to purloin an ESPN sportscaster’s favorite phrase: Not so fast, my friend.
The Army and other services will surely be intrigued by the X3, which uses the thrust of its two propellers and the lift of its wing to defeat “compressibility,” “retreating blade stall” and the natural imbalance in how much thrust the advancing and retreating blades of a rotor produce — aspects of rotor aerodynamics that hold conventional helicopters to cruising speeds well below 200 knots. The X3 isn’t the only, or even the fastest or most advanced, unconventional helicopter out there, though. And with a defense budget in decline and threatened by sequestration, not to mention the languid pace and amorphous state of Pentagon rotorcraft development, there’s no reason to think X3 derivatives – or any other exotic new rotorcraft — will be darkening American skies any time soon.
“There are incredibly promising technologies that are just waiting to be developed,” said Michael Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International, “but they have to actually be funded.”
That’s a story that hasn’t changed much since the Cold War. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. armed services have spent billions to field new generations of ever more advanced fighter jets. Yet the only significantly faster rotorcraft put into production since the 1980s is the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor troop transport, which can cruise at 240 knots or better. The Marine Corps fielded the Osprey in 2007 and the Air Force Special Operations Command began flying it operationally in 2009.
The Army, the service that uses the most rotorcraft by far, cancelled its last effort to develop a truly next-generation helicopter in 2004, when it scrapped the RAH-66 Comanche and used the savings on its existing helicopter fleet. Two years later, the Army began buying EADS North America’s UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter, a military version of Eurocopter’s EC145 that’s built in Columbus, Miss., to replace its Vietnam-era UH-1 Hueys and, for the National Guard, aging Bell Helicopter OH-58 scout helicopters. The Army is also considering whether to replace or simply revamp its OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, a decision expected late this year or next after the service finishes assessing what industry has to offer as an Armed Aerial Scout.
Among the candidates is a configuration developed by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of Stratford, Conn., called X2, which uses rigid, counter-rotating coaxial rotors – one positioned over the other – and a pusher propeller to overcome the speed limits of rotor aerodynamics. Sikorsky’s X2 technology demonstrator hit 250 knots in level flight while using only 75 percent of its engine power two years ago during flight tests. Now Sikorsky is offering an X2 configuration called the S-97 Raider for the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout.
The Army’s chief aviation procurement officer, Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, has made clear he doesn’t think the service can afford a new full-scale development program to replace the OH-58D, but Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens said his company was going to make an offer that might be hard to refuse. Sikorsky and 35 major subcontractors are already fabricating structural components of two prototype S-97 Raiders and plan to give one to the Army to evaluate, he said.
“Should the Army choose to buy it, we will have done the entire development phase for them on our own nickel,” Jurgens noted.
EADS North America has said it will build an armed version of its Lakota for the Army to evaluate, so Sikorsky should be the only company offering an unconventionally fast helicopter for an Armed Aerial Scout. Others are working separately on hybrid helicopters that can top 200 knots, but they won’t be proposing them as new start designs for Armed Aerial Scout. Nor are the other those other designers big corporations able to fund such work out of their own pockets, as Eurocopter did with the X3 and Sikorsky with its X2. Eurocopter hasn’t revealed how much it spent to develop the X3. Spokesman Jurgens said Sikorsky invested $50 million of its own to develop the X2 – a small sum compared to the $8.5 billion Sikorsky is to gross under its latest UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter contract.
Piasecki Aircraft Corp., a small company near Philadelphia that devises and develops new rotorcraft and unmanned aircraft technologies, has relied on $40 million in Navy and Army contracts since 2004 to modify a Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk by adding a Vectored Thrust Ducted Propeller to its tail and a wing to its mid-fuselage, which provide the thrust and lift needed to exceed normal rotor speed limits. Piasecki’s X-49A Speedhawk demonstrated a 40 percent increase in speed using the SH-60′s normal power and hit 180 knots four years ago, but testing had to stop there because of limits set by the Sea Hawk’s flight manual, said John Piasecki, the company’s president. Piasecki said the Navy wants to transfer title to the aircraft to his company so he can take the X-49A beyond the flight manual limits. He expects it to hit 215 knots. He’s also working with Boeing Co., under an Army study contract, to design a similar helicopter that could cruise at 270 knots.
Other designers, such as former Bell Helicopter chief engineer and tiltrotor designer Troy Gaffey’s AVX Aircraft Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, are also working on hybrids. AVX’s concept, being developed under a $3.8 million Army design contract, would combine coaxial rotors akin to the X2′s with two ducted pusher propellers akin to Piasecki’s X-49A. According to the company web site, the AVX concept could be used either to build a new aircraft or to modify OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.
Gaffey, who played a major role in designing the V-22, said his company’s goal is to design a helicopter that will go as fast as 200 knots but no more. Faster than that and the penalty in added drag from a helicopter’s rotors, which requires more power and less payload, “is just too high,” he said. Making a helicopter that can fly fast isn’t the trick, Gaffey added, noting that his former employer Bell put two jet engines on a prototype UH-1 Huey in 1969 and a “very brave pilot” unofficially flew it at 274 knots.
“We just used brute thrust to get it up to that speed,” he said. “Given enough power, you can fly a barn door fast.” The question, Gaffey said, is whether a test aircraft can be turned into a production model able to carry a useful load economically and otherwise fly efficiently. Besides, while the armed forces need rotorcraft with more speed to get troops into battle and the wounded to medical care faster, being able to hover at high altitudes and hot temperatures with less power is also desirable, especially for many Army missions.
More speed also isn’t the only thing U.S. military rotorcraft need. Better survivability, which includes avoiding and withstanding enemy fire as well as helping aircraft occupants live through a crash, is another. So are technologies to help crews see or at least navigate through “degraded visual environments” – mainly “brownout” and “whiteout” landings, in which rotors kick up dust, sand or snow that blinds a pilot and causes a crash.
Two years ago, alarmed by routine losses of helicopters in Afghanistan and elsewhere that have now claimed 418 machines and 615 lives since 2001, the Pentagon finally took notice of how far rotorcraft development has lagged. The Defense Department wrote a Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Strategic Plan. It also persuaded the helicopter industry to form a cooperative of sorts called the Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC) to encourage teaming for research contracts awarded outside normal defense acquisition rules and thus more quickly. Progress remains slow, however.
This appears to be why the House version of this year’s defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to submit a status report on the FVL and VLC efforts and spend $5 million to “flight-demonstrate” new vertical lift technology by 2016. The Senate version of the same bill, meanwhile, would require the Pentagon to submit a report with input from the VLC and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on how to make faster progress toward fielding new vertical lift technologies.
Even industry experts, though, are uncertain just where the Pentagon is going in rotorcraft development — for reasons an Army spokesman’s emailed description of the efforts underway may illustrate:
“FVL (Future Vertical Lift), or JFVL (Joint Future Vertical Lift), is not really a program, but an initiative,” the email said, adding that, “The Pentagon and the U.S. Army are in the early stages of a far-reaching Science & Technology (S&T) effort designed to engineer, build and demonstrate critical technologies that would support the development of a next-generation helicopter with vastly improved avionics, electronics, range, speed, propulsion, survivability, operating density altitudes and payload capacity. … Over-arching JFVL efforts span a range of four classes of future aircraft, ranging from light helicopters to medium and heavy lift variants and an ultra-class category designed to build a new fleet of super-heavy lift aircraft. … The ultra-class variant, described as a C-130 type of transport aircraft, is part of an Air Force led, Army-Air Force collaborative S&T effort called Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL).”
Here’s the bottom line: The Defense Department’s goal is to produce three or four classes of an advanced rotorcraft and begin fielding only the medium class, meaning those that would replace Black Hawks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, by 2030. That’s 18 years from now. In the meantime, the Pentagon’s annual budget for rotorcraft research is about $110 million – less than half the cost of a single F-22 Raptor fighter jet, and roughly the same as the helicopter research budget was in the 1980s, not counting inflation.
“Given the timelines to develop and deploy a new platform, we’ll be lucky to have a new (rotorcraft) reach IOC (initial operational capability) by 2030,” said Piasecki.
Still, the emergence of fast hybrids like the X2 and X3, which Piasecki would like to think his X-49A helped inspire, gives him hope that a rotorcraft renaissance is getting underway. The only question is whether a Pentagon under tremendous budget pressure can nurture it.
“It’s going to be really up to the government to create conditions for innovation and competition,” Piasecki said. “My biggest problem right now is funding.”
In other words, while vision without execution is hallucination, as Thomas Edison supposedly said, execution without funding is a mirage.