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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Skeptics to Smiles: Eurocopter X3 Woos DC Military Operators

Trek that began June 20 in Texas showcases performance of the prototype hybrid helicopter to military and commercial pilots.

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

Eurocopter’s X3 U.S. summer tour—which started with a June 20 ceremony in Grand Prairie, Texas and included trips to Redstone Arsenal, Fort Bragg, Davison Army Airfield and Manassas Regional Airport—will end on Thursday after a visit to the Pentagon. From there, it will make a ferry flight to Richmond, Va. before being disassembled and flown back to Europe.

Rotor & Wing caught up with Eurocopter’s X3 test pilots and mechanics, as well as Stephen Mundt, EADS North America vice president of business development, on Tuesday evening 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 have flown the aircraft as part of the U.S. journey, with Rotor & Wing Editor-at-Large Ernie Stephens among the first to fly the X3 (on June 18) outside of the company’s test pilots (see Ernie’s Pilot Report in the August issue).

Photos by Andrew Parker

Mundt, who flew the prototype twice, described the reaction to the prototype 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!’”

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 that need to be set up 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 market involves a different set of requirements. “There are all sorts of militaries around, looking for different technologies. Here in the United States, 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 [that are 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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