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Monday, February 1, 2016

What is the Pay-Off of Speed?

The answer still depends on which mission will be flown and which operator will fly it.

By James T. McKenna, with Frank Lombardi and Richard Whittle

The U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B’s ability to deploy swiftly over great distances is providing solid examples of speed’s value in Pentagon future-aircraft discussions. Some operators want incremental speed gains, while Bristow (below) and others are investigating bigger speed advantages.  
Images courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Ryan C. Mains, Airbus Helicopters and Finmeccanica-Helicopters

After decades of abstract arguments about the benefits that a tiltrotor would bring to military operations in the field, U.S. Marine Corps leaders are offering concrete examples.

Those leaders are drawing on the activities of Ospreys deployed to Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia to detail specific advantages the Bell Boeing tiltrotor’s combination of speed, range and payload bring to U.S. military operations as well as diplomatic and other national security ones. Marine officials and others maintain that those presentations are altering joint discussions within the Defense Dept. on future vertical-lift aircraft.

Those developments come as AgustaWestland, now Finmeccanica-Helicopters, is working to recover from the loss of its No. 2 flight test AW609 (and its two test pilots) Oct. 30, 2015, and to proceed with type certification that will enable it to begin flying missions and demonstrating the civil tiltrotor to customers.

The question remains: how much would an operator that doesn’t have access to a military-style R&D, operating and contingency budget be willing to pay for the advantage of added speed? A related question is: how much more speed do operators actually want?

Some examples the Marines cite of the Osprey’s speed, range and payload benefits are derived from the operations of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force for Crisis Response. Set up after the 2012 attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador and three security personnel to provide a rapid-response capability, the task force is based in Moron, Spain.

In December 2013, the newly formed nation of South Sudan (in northeast Africa) was in turmoil. U.S. officials decided to evacuate the embassy in Juba, South Sudan. Col. Rob Freeland briefed a November 2015 meeting of the American Helicopter Society International’s chapter in Washington, D.C., on the operations. An MV-22 pilot, he was the commander of the task force’s air combat element in 2013.

There to Stay

Freeland explained that the task force deployed four MV-22Bs and two Lockheed Martin KC-130 tankers with about 160 Marines and sailors from Moron to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden coast between Eritrea and Somalia. They then moved on to Entebbe, Uganda. The deployment covered 3,400 nm, about the same distance as that between Chicago and London.

The troops evacuated nearly 400 Americans and 300 others.

Freeland said that the State Dept. had been considering closing the Juba embassy during the turmoil, but opted to keep it open once it saw that the task force could provide support to the facility swiftly.

“That allowed us to send the Americans who were in South Sudan and were there to stay,” he said. “We weren’t going anywhere.”

Several Marine officials and others said experiences like that are leading other services involved in Defense Dept. investigations of high-speed vertical-lift aircraft to assess the V-22’s capabilities more thoroughly (see Rotorcraft Report, page 15).

Finmeccanica-Helicopters hopes to start demonstrating such capabilities by gaining type certification of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-powered AW609 in 2017. Its work was delayed after the midair breakup of the No. 2 prototype over Italy in October. The company has grounded the No. 1 prototype as a precaution while civil authorities in Italy, aided by their U.S. counterparts, investigate the crash’s cause.

The manufacturer said it plans to begin initial ground tests of the No. 3 prototype shortly and resume flight tests before April (if findings of the accident investigation support it).

The AW609 program did get a boost after the prototype crash when the United Arab Emirates’ Joint Aviation Command in November selected the civil tiltrotor for search and rescue (SAR) missions. It becomes the launch customer for the AW609 SAR variant.

The command ordered three AW609s, which are scheduled to be delivered starting in 2019. The command also placed options for three more of the aircraft.

As for how much more speed civil customers want, Airbus Helicopters’ Chris Emerson said that is a complex and detailed question. He is the new president and CEO of Airbus Helicopters Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas, and head of Airbus Helicopters North America Region.

“When you do this analysis, you cannot do it generically, at an industry level,” he said. “You’ve got to do it in a segment. What is the cost-benefit analysis of speed for air medical, for instance, or law enforcement or a VIP operator?”

He noted that faster flight involves more vibration and strain on the aircraft and a corresponding increase in aircraft weight for systems and structure to counter those effects. That drives costs up. But some operators are willing to pay the price, depending on their mission.

“Our tour operator customers in the Grand Canyon would take it,” he said. “For them, more speed means they may have the opportounty to do an additional sortie before the sun goes down, and that’s top-line revenue for them.”

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