An X3-based compound helicopter called LifeCraft is one of two fast rotorcraft flight demonstrators planned under the Clean Sky 2 research program now being proposed to the European Commission. Planned to fly in 2018, the LifeCraft would have a 220-kt. cruise speed. High-level objectives for the program include demonstrating emergency evacuation over 200 km in less than 30 min., and gate-to-gate travel over 550 km in less than 90 min.
LifeCraft would have the same configuration as the X3, with twin turboshaft engines driving the main rotor and wing-tip variable-speed propellers via a single main transmission. This provides the agility of the helicopter while avoiding the need for a tail rotor and it enables high speed, with the propellers providing propulsion and the wing off-loading the rotor.
Before he retired from Eurocopter, then-CEO Lutz Bertling spoke of the company's vision of providing rotary-wing commuter aircraft which would remove the need for slot use at constrained international airports. He suggested that such an aircraft, perhaps with the X3 technology, could be available in the early 2020s.
It is likely any aircraft using the X3 design would be at the heavy end of the company's product range. The X6, which is understood to be a replacement candidate for the AS332 and EC225 Super Puma, is currently under development. It is possible the company may develop two versions of the helicopter, one conventional, the other using X3 technology.
“Helicopters can fly relatively fast and the noise footprint for people living around the airport is relatively similar to current traffic noise, so vertical lift can still play a role in commuting people, providing you can design an aircraft that delivers higher speed at reasonable cost,” said Bertling. Regional jets and turboprops will continue to have a place, however. Even though the X3 is faster than traditional helicopters, it is still not as fast as a turboprop.
“I believe we could well see the first serial products which could do the job with a smaller number of passengers—say 19 seats—at the beginning of the 2020s, and I could imagine seeing larger aircraft with 30-40 seats in the mid-'20s,” he said.
The current EC225/725 family continues to sell, but its design is based on the 1965-vintage Aerospatiale SA330 Puma. With the EC225 now losing market share to Sikorsky's newer S-92 and also the smaller AgustaWestland AW189, the time for a new product may be right.