AUSA: Visitors to Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.’s display at this year’s Association of the United States Army meetings in Washington can hardly miss an eye-popping marketing video the company is showing. Running on a huge flat screen hung at the entrance to the company’s spot on the show floor, the video uses simulation imagery of XBox quality to show how Sikorsky’s conceptual S-97 Raider – a compound helicopter based on the X2 Technology Demonstrator the company flew in 2010-2011 – would perform Armed Aerial Scout missions for the Army.
It’s a great show. Zooming through canyons at what looks like the S-97’s projected cruising speed of 220 knots – an impossibility for ordinary helicopters – a Raider in a formation of five uses a video downlink from a Predator drone to take out a group of heavily armed insurgents with laser-guided rockets, firing before the enemy can hear the helicopters coming. Then, at the request of ground troops, another Raider uses its mini-gun to kill six insurgents hiding in a tree line.
Another Raider lands to drop a reconnaissance team as still others provide covering fire, picking off insurgents on a roof top as the good guys enter a village. In its most spectacular moment, the video shows a Raider coming to a 20 degree nose-down hover to fire on more insurgents with a mini-gun – then back up while gaining altitude to pivot and fire on some more enemy fighters. As Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens beamingly points out, no other aircraft can do that.
To be entirely accurate, “other” has to be dropped from that last phrase, for while Sikorsky has an already outdated mockup pf the S-97 at its AUSA display, the Raider doesn’t actually exist yet. The company expects to fly the first of two prototypes it is building in 2014. Even so, the Raider is what Sikorsky will offer if the Army decides later this year to buy a new Armed Aerial Scout to replace Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.’s venerable OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, versions of which have been in service since 1969, rather than simply upgrading the OH-58Ds it already has.
Unlike five other helicopter makers, Sikorsky could only tell — not really show — when the Army invited the companies last May to conduct flight demonstrations of aircraft they would offer to replace the OH-58D. Nearly a year earlier, Sikorsky had retired the aircraft the S-97 is derived from, its X2 Technology Demonstrator. The X2, also part of Sikorsky’s AUSA display, was an experimental compound helicopter whose coaxial rotors and pusher propeller allowed test pilots to set unofficial speed records – as much as 290 miles per hour in level flight — prior to its 23rd and last flight on July 14, 2011. Consequently, while Sikorsky’s competitors already have conducted or soon will conduct actual flight demos of their Armed Aerial Scout offerings, Sikorsky was limited to giving detailed technical briefings to about three dozen Army experts who visited in August. The company also let several test pilots and combat veteran aviators among the Army delegation fly its S-97 simulator. Among the maneuvers demonstrated in the simulator were the “unusual attitude hovers” featured in Sikorsky’s marketing video, but the Army experts weren’t shown the video itself, said Steve Engebretson, director of Sikorsky’s Armed Aerial Scout program.
Engebretson likes his company’s chances, should the Army get beyond the window-shopping stage, even without an S-97 flying. The Army Request for Information that led to the flight demonstrations by other helicopter makers, he notes, specifically stated that technical data would be more important than flight demos. “Our submission carries as much weight with the Army as anybody’s,” Engebretson said. “We believe we have the most advanced capability.” And while even the X2 didn’t perform the maneuvers featured in the video Sikorsky is showing at AUSA, the company’s technical data “absolutely” shows that the S-97 will be able to back up into the sky in a hover while firing its weapons, Engebretson added.
“No doubt whatsoever,” he said. “We’re building an aircraft that’s going to start demonstrating that in about 18 months.” Can’t wait.