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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Editor’s Notebook: X3 in DC

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

Despite the traffic, humidity, political gridlock and so on, living in the Washington, D.C., metro area has its advantages, including for the aviation and defense industries. Cultural diversity is another major attraction, as just about every big act that goes on tour will come through the D.C. area.

Taxi into Manassas after returning from the trips around DC.
Photos by Andrew Parker

Such is the case for Eurocopter’s recent “summer tour” of the X3 that began June 20 in Texas and showcased the performance of the prototype hybrid helicopter to military and commercial operators. The U.S. summer tour—which started with a June 20 ceremony in Grand Prairie, Texas and included trips to the Pentagon, Redstone Arsenal, Fort Bragg, Davison Army Airfield and Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia. I caught up with the X3 test pilots and mechanics, as well as Stephen Mundt, vice president of business development for EADS North America, on July 24 at Manassas Airport as the aircraft returned from Davison. They noted that the X3 just went over 100 hours flown earlier in the day, with about half of that time logged since arriving in the U.S. More than 40 pilots flew the aircraft as part of the U.S. journey, with Rotor & Wing Editor-at-Large Ernie Stephens becoming the second U.S. pilot to fly the X3 (see Ernie’s Pilot Report in the August issue on page 26).

Eurocopter test pilots with Stephen Mundt of EADS NA.

Mundt, who piloted the prototype himself twice, described the reaction to the aircraft from both military and commercial operators, noting that many of the pilots came out of the cockpit with smiles on their faces. “You watch people walk out to this aircraft, and they’re not sold. They’re going, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, listen, I don’t know if this is going to work for me.’ They get in, and when they get out, they say, ‘Wow, I could think of so many ways to use this aircraft!’”  

Herve Jammayrac

Experimental test pilot Herve Jammayrac, who’s been involved with the X3 from its start as a “clean sheet of paper” less than five years ago, says that “we’ve done a lot of the work” related to engineering and design required to turn the X3 prototype into an offshoot commercial or military production variant. But he cautioned that there are a lot of additional issues such as certification, maintenance support, training and tooling related to a production aircraft, adding that the X3 is still in the demonstration phase. “Clearly there’s an interest in the commercial market,” said Mundt.

“Time is money, and it’s not just how fast it goes, but the thing that’s constantly talked about is that it flies cheaper than a conventional helicopter.”

Operators, he continued, are getting “at least a 25 percent savings overall. It costs a little bit more, but it goes 50 percent faster, so you’re actually saving money in the long run by the seat mile.” Lower operating costs are “something unheard of” when considering compound helicopters, Mundt added. “Most compounds that you talk about cost more to operate. This is actually going to be cheaper. So from a commercial perspective, VIP/corporate, offshore, EMS—they were like, ‘Can you sell me one tomorrow?’” 

The military involves a different set of requirements. “There are all sorts of militaries around, looking for different technologies. Here in the U.S., they’re looking at Future Vertical Lift, with a target of 2030,” Mundt said. But with the X3 and Sikorsky’s X2, “they’re starting to say, maybe there is technology to get the kinds of capabilities [needed]. It’s not necessarily going to take us 20 years to get there.”

According to Jammayrac, after returning to Eurocopter for a Family Day in August, the X3 will travel to France in early September and then to Germany for the Berlin Air Show later in the month. At that point, there will be a few more tests, “but that’s pretty much it,” he said, with retirement of the prototype scheduled by the end of 2012.

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