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Thursday, June 1, 2006

Editor’s Notebook

James T. McKenna

A Thrill A Minute

An exciting year for rotorcraft continues apace. Its start was marked by late February's Heli-Expo, which throbbed with optimism, new aircraft sales and launches, upgrades of older aircraft and engines, as well as customers on the prowl for deals. Industry officials spoke of a remarkable period in which all sectors of operations are riding high, which obviously drives demand for aircraft, engines, parts, repair and overhaul services, and new employees.

We'll overlook the implication of that coincidence of high activity--that all sectors may turn down at once, too--and focus on the optimism. The latest burst of it came at the American Helicopter Society International's annual Forum 62 last month in Phoenix.

Now you may not have noticed it even if you were there, particularly if you were on the exhibit floor. Companies large and small exhibited, with many looking to make or enhance the contacts they need to get their products on the largest manufacturers' and military operators' aircraft. But if the pace on the floor was slow, it was for good reason. The real action was in the Forum's multitude of technical sessions populated by engineering and program management types, aerospace professors, graduate students and gray heads.

I know it's hard for many of you to associate "action" with hours filled with conversation under banners like "A Study of Higher Harmonic Air Loads for Helicopter Rotors in Descent Flight with Computational Fluid Dynamics," "Design and Test of a Mach Scale Swashplate-less Rotor Using Smart Trailing-Edge Flaps" and "Conceptual Design of Pericyclic Non-Traction Continuously Variable Transmissions: Rotorcraft Applications." Well, perhaps "action" is too animated for as cerebral a gathering as the Forum. Still, it was chock full of signs that things are percolating on the left side of the industry's brain.

The background was the intense activity stoked by the 2004 cancellation of the U.S. Army's RAH-66 Comanche program and redirection of its funding stream into other rotorcraft programs. The Armed Reconnaissance and Light Utility programs aren't the only beneficiaries of that. Sikorsky's H-60, Boeing's AH-64 and CH-47 and MD Helicopters' AH/MH-6 have all gained, as have vendors that provide gear for those aircraft.

The blemish on the U.S. industry's rosy outlook has been the ongoing strangulation of federal funding for rotorcraft R&D, most notably through garrotes placed on NASA's budget by those in Washington anxious to forget that the first "A" in the acronym for the "space agency" stands for "aeronautics."

So it was with much anticipation that attendees gathered on the Forum's first day to hear NASA's aeronautics research chief, Lisa Porter, address the agency's commitment to that field. It was a standing-room-only crowd. Her comments were noteworthy enough that we have excerpted them on pages 56-58. The highlight, as Porter saw it: "We believe that rotorcraft is a very important element of our portfolio in NASA's aeronautics program."

Porter's belief is apparently strong enough that she's willing to back it with funding. The funding is, I think all would admit, a miniscule amount. But it is more than zero, the level at which NASA has been funding rotorcraft research in recent years. The backing Porter and her boss, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, give to aeronautics research in general and rotorcraft research in particular is more valuable than the dollar amounts. That support argues, for instance, that the Army is not alone in this funding battle and that its support for the National Rotorcraft Technology Center, a key research-funding vehicle, should continue. There had been talk that the Army would pull the plug on that joint program, in large part because it was footing the bill alone.

Another well-attended session focused on the challenges of developing high-speed rotorcraft. This may not have been a pie-in-the-sky series of Powerpoint presentations. Those speaking, and some attending, said there is a growing interest among manufacturers and "end users," that vague term that covers commercial operators and those government customers whose names are never mentioned, in conquering the challenge of producing rotorcraft that can routinely cruise at 250 kt. or more. That has foiled designers for nearly a half century. Sikorsky is not the only one keen to end that run. (Its new president, Jeff Pino, reiterated the company's commitment to fly the X-2 technology demonstrator, whose goal is to do just that, by year's end.)

The optimism at the Forum strikes me as noteworthy because those expressing it may be laying the foundation for the next century of vertical flight. If successful, they will enable to operators and manufacturers who are giddy today to achieve even greater efficiency and profit. Together with those pushing for gains in rotorcraft safety, they aim to bring this industry into a new age--a prospect that will remain exciting for decades to come.

We bid farewell with this issue to one of our contributors, Shawn Coyle, who for the last year has penned our "Tech Talk" column. When I last mentioned Shawn, back in November, he'd become chief of flight operations for Agusta Aerospace Corp. He moved on from that post shortly thereafter, and has since been working with the Belgium-based firm Aerosimulators and consulting as an expert witness for plaintiffs' lawsuits. Shawn has chosen to take a position with Vertical magazine that, among other things, offers him a fair amount of travel.

All of us here wish him the best in his journeys.

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