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Friday, October 1, 2010

Game Changer?

By Joy Finnegan

Quoting the article “Defence spending in a time of austerity,” in the Aug. 26, 2010 issue of The Economist, “The fighter is an endangered species. One threat comes from success: in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western forces have been uncontested in the air, if not on the ground, so sophisticated fighters seem less relevant … The aircraft that American field commanders most clamour for is not the F-22 but helicopters…”

With the economy in a continued downturn and defense spending likely to see drastic reductions in the coming months, what we do need is a game changer—aircraft that allows us to do more with less. Could the offspring of the X2 be such a game changer?

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010, the Sikorsky X2 Technology demonstrator flew at a speed of 250 knots true airspeed, breaking (unofficially) the world speed record for a helicopter. The X2 flew at 260 KTAS during that flight while in a slight descent. Also, one drag-reducing component was not installed during that flight but will be added and X2 will be test flown again to see if there will be any gain in airspeed with it installed. For more on the September 15th flight, see Rotorcraft Report.

In an exclusive interview with Rotor & Wing just moments after the historic flight, Sikorsky President Jeffrey Pino, Chris Van Buiten, director of Sikorsky Innovations and Mark Miller, vice president of research and engineering, marveled at the sight of the X2 out-accelerating an S-76 in the length of half a runway as well as its ability to pull up and away from the twin turboprop chase plane leaving it quickly behind. To hear Rotor & Wing’s exclusive interview with Jeffrey Pino, president of Sikorsky Aircraft, go to www.rotorandwing.com.

Later, in a press conference, Kevin Bredenbeck, director of flight operations and chief pilot for Sikorsky, spoke with childlike enthusiasm about the potential abilities of the X2, saying that in all the flights so far they had been very conservative in the maneuvers not wanting to risk any unnecessary delays. It was easy to tell he is eager to really put the aircraft through its paces saying, “the control power was amazing.”

Another key idea that was discussed during the press conference was the fact that almost the entire flight occurred at a speed greater than 200 KTAS, substantially faster than most helicopters fly today in normal cruise.

Just imagine it: a substantially faster helicopter with incredible maneuverability and control power. But I’m not suggesting this helicopter is a frivolous, high-end sports car of the sky. These are not just “wants” in terms of what would be nice to have in a future helicopter. These are “needs.”

In the current economic situation, all business entities, including the U.S. military, are being asked to do more with less. Increasing the capabilities of the assets at our command would significantly help in terms of trying to achieve the most efficient and capable way to conduct business, military or civilian.

Can you imagine doing your work today without copy machine? Without a computer? How about without a cell phone? All these technologies are things that allow us to function more efficiently. These efficiencies allow us to be productive at a level that would no doubt awe our ancestors. So it will probably be when someone looks back on the progress of the helicopter.

One of the interesting things that Sikorsky did in setting their performance parameters for the X2 was that they included things like noise level, pilot workload and the ability of the helicopter to adjust to its environment. They didn’t set out to make an unusable piece of equipment whose only claim to fame was that it broke a speed record. They set out to produce a safe, fast, usable product.

There have been tandem rotor helicopters before. There have been aircraft with pusher props before. There are vibration control systems. Fly-by-wire is in a couple of military helicopters already. But each of these systems has been refined to the point that they can be put to use in the real world, and have been integrated into this demonstrator.

From that perspective, I do believe this advancement will be a game changer. We may not see it for a number of years to come, but in 50 or 60 years, I think aviation historians will look back to the day X2 broke the 250 KTAS speed record as a turning point. The military will benefit. Soldiers who have been injured on the front lines will benefit. Those needing the services of civilian HEMS will benefit.

To quote the father of the company, Igor Sikorsky, “If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that’s just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life.” And if that aircraft happened to be twice as fast as its predecessor, imagine the possibilities for improvement in outcomes.

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