Friday, July 1, 2005
The Real Future of Flight
Looking back over the last month, you could see how someone might be enticed into a rosy view of rotorcraft's future. Since our June 2005 issue questioned how the U.S. helicopter industry could survive on a starvation diet of research and development funding and competition from European industry flush with R&D money, Sikorsky and Bell (and with it Boeing and AgustaWestland) have laid out potential paths for restoring real vigor to rotorcraft efforts.
Sikorsky, of course, stirred things up with revelation of plans to challenge the traditional helicopter's practical speed barrier with its X2 technologies initiative to fly a demonstrator that cruises at 250 kt. For a company whose past public and customer relations practices could make the cabals of "The Da Vinci Code," look like vaudeville troops, Sikorsky is demonstrating impressive marketing acumen. As the venue for unveiling the X2 project, Sikorsky President Stephen Finger chose not the Paris Air Show, but the American Helicopter Society International's annual technical forum and exhibition in Grapevine, Texas.
The reason, Finger said, was that a U.S. event with the heritage of AHS' forum was the appropriate place to launch an American technological initiative. That certainly makes sense. But unveiling X2 two weeks before the world's premier aerospace event got that project off on the right public footing for several reasons. It ensured that members of the aerospace world interested in advancement in rotorcraft technology would be talking about X2 for half a month before Paris.
It meant Sikorsky's initiative would be slightly less buried by the incessant and inane media chatter about whether the future of aviation lies in building a huge, ugly airliner (in the form of Airbus' A380) or yet another long-range passenger tube (Boeing's "Dreamliner"). It also helped ensure that the attention at Paris would be on the promises of X2.
Make no mistake about it, a technological initiative's prospects depend as much on its public perception as its engineering soundness. I recall in "The Right Stuff," the movie on the early U.S. space program, a confrontation between the Mercury astronauts and the immigrant German designers over whether their rocket would be topped by a "capsule" or a "spacecraft" and the man in it would be an occupant or a "astronaut-pilot." The designers could build a craft to launch, fly and land completely automatically, and the astronauts knew this. But as the argument peaks, with a gaggle of reporters and press photographers in the background, one astronaut asks the Germans, "Do you know what makes this thing fly? Funding." He explained that the American public wants to see Buck Rogers go into space, then--jerking his thumb toward the press--concludes, "No Buck Rogers, no bucks." Fictional though it may be, that assessment is dead on. Sikorsky and its partners are starting off sinking their own money into X2, but for it to pay off, some customer--government or commercial--is going to have to put up bucks to fly it.
Clearly, Sikorsky is taking on major challenges with X2 that no amount of public support can overcome alone. Many skeptics believe the requirements for and the constraints of physics are impenetrable barriers to a traditional helicopter cruising much faster than 170 kt. Finger and his Sikorsky/Schweizer team seem confident they can prove the skeptics wrong. Considering the progress since the 1970-80s XH-59A Advancing Blade Concept Demonstrator in flight controls, powerplant management and composite materials, you can understand their optimism. Whether they succeed completely or not, the efforts of those team members are impressive for several reasons. Not the least of these are that they undoubtedly will learn things that improve the efficiency and utility of helicopters and that Sikorsky and its partners are betting their own money that they can succeed.
In Texas, Bell is pressing ahead with projects at its XworX R&D center. Among the more interesting is its investigation of the use of turboshaft engine exhaust for anti-torque control for its future aircraft. Bell developed the Propulsive Anti-Torque System for its entrant in the aborted U.S. military Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle program. Similar in concept to MD Helicopter's NOTAR system, the Bell system is better, the company says, because it can fly at high altitudes with little degradation of anti-torque or main rotor performance. Officially, Bell is internally competing this system against an anti-torque tail-fan, with a winner to be determined in a year or two. But the betting is on the former, and not only because of the view that Eurocopter's already done the tail-fan. (There's that public-perception devil at work again.) Advocates say the propulsive anti-torque system is simpler and quieter.
Add to those developments Bell, Boeing and AgustaWestland's tilt-rotor initiatives. V-22 officials at Bell, Boeing and the U.S. Marine Corps express every confidence that the Osprey will successfully clear its second operational evaluation this month. Doing so is critical to the survival of that program, and a blessing from the evaluators would mean program officials will finally have the chance the transformational nature of tilt-rotors. With the V-22's improved prospects, Bell and AgustaWestland are picking up in earnest their development of the BA609 civil tilt-rotor, which resumed flight testing June 3 and may, by the time you read this, have cleared the hurdle of fully transitional to flight in airplane mode.
These developments, if they pay off, would mean discussions on the future of aviation would be how rotorcraft can be used more effectively for commercial and public good--a welcome change from debates about which is better, a new pressurized tube that can carry 80 tons of passengers and freight or one that can only carry 70 tons.