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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Do We Need an X-Prize?

James T. McKenna

Where is Raymond Orteig when we need him? Aviation history buffs know that name as belonging to the hotelier who in 1919 offered $25,000 to the first to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. The more recognizable name associated with his is that of Charles Lindbergh, who claimed the prize after landing The Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget airfield on May 20, 1927 following a solo flight of 33 hr, 29 min and more than 3,137 nm from New York.

Orteig posted his offer in an era of prizes that, from 1905 to 1935, served to spur the advancement of aircraft technology. By one account, for instance, the year after Lucky Lindy’s transatlantic feat saw a 400 percent increase in the number of licensed aircraft and a 300 percent rise in pilot license applications in the United States alone.

Those were all fixed-wing gains, of course, but rotorcraft benefited from Orteig’s prize, too. It prompted nine attempts to cross the Atlantic, including one involving a name as famous to us as that of the Lone Eagle: Igor Sikorsky. He built the S-35 biplane that legendary French ace René Fonck used to vie for the prize on Sept. 21, 1926.

Fonck crashed the S-35 on takeoff, but Sikorsky climbed on. He and Lindbergh became friends. Lindy, as a technical adviser to Pan American Airways, fostered development of the series of flying boats that carried Pan Am passengers and Sikorsky’s name to a good portion of the flying world in the 1930s. That helped keep alive Sikorsky’s dream of building a helicopter. In return, he taught Lindbergh how to fly one.

The U.S. industry’s dependency on military funding for R&D keeps innovators out of the game, and the cost of civil design certification likewise stifles innovation.

Orteig comes to mind because the technical side of the industry is preparing to gather for the American Helicopter Society International’s annual forum next month in Montreal. That is again occasion to consider the technological health of rotorcraft, which has long been ailing in the United States, and what might be done to strengthen it.

Perhaps I risk being labeled a Cassandra for striking a gloomy note on the heels of yet another Heli-Expo that amazed attendees and exhibitors alike with the pace and breadth of the business done there. But a recent report by a U.S. trade group raises the concern. Compiled by a panel of the Aerospace Industries Assn, it argues that U.S. rotorcraft engineering capability is withering because of the dearth of new aircraft programs on which new engineers can hone their art. That rotorcraft engineering, distinct from the fixed-wing variety, remains very much an art is a central tenet of the report’s argument. It is backed by no less an industry leader than Frank Robinson, as we explain on pages 40-41.

The problem, as the AIA group sees it, is that the primary source of U.S. rotorcraft funding — the Pentagon-for a variety of reasons has bred an industry dependent on helicopter derivatives and service — life extensions. That gives manufacturers plenty of production work, as we see today, but little motivation to develop new designs. So many aspiring engineers enter other fields and those in rotorcraft are starved of opportunities to develop their skills.

The U.S. industry’s dependency on military funding for research and development keeps innovators like Robinson out of the game (since he’s sworn off Pentagon work). The cost of certification for a new, wholly civil design is prohibitive and likewise stifles innovation. So the question comes to mind: do we need an X Prize for U.S. rotorcraft?

The X Prize is the modern successor to aviation’s prize patrons. It was born in 1994, when Peter Diamandis read Lindbergh’s autobiography. The next year, he set up the X Prize Foundation to spur innovation in space exploration. In 2004, it presented $10 million to a team led by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for flying the world’s first private vehicle in space twice in two weeks.

Keep in mind that, at that time, spaceflight was considered (in the United States, at least) the exclusive domain of NASA and the Pentagon. Now entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is preparing to take its first passengers into space in an aircraft based on the X Prize-winning design. The foundation has since broadened its mission, offering prizes in "green" automobile design, medicine, and lunar exploration.

How far could $10 million go in fostering interest in solving rotorcraft engineering challenges? Consider that the U.S. Army and NASA today are funding basic rotorcraft research at less than $100 million a year and industry advocates are begging for budget additions in near-single digits of millions. I suspect a prize of only $1 million could spur a great deal of applied research.

What would the criteria be for such a prize? Where might its sources be found? Those are questions for bigger minds than mine. It is enough now, I’d suggest, to keep in mind that Orteig’s legacy is much greater than his 1919 prize offer envisioned.

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