At the American Helicopter Society's Forum 65 gathering in Grapevine, Texas a week or so back, several of the speakers talked about the need for speed. This is coming out of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for two reasons.
First, the V-22 tiltrotor has set a new standard for speed around the battlefield. Secondly, as its rotor has to produce lift and thrust, a helicopter struggling to lift its load in a hot day at high altitude does not have much oomph left to go fast. The Black Hawk is not a 150kt helicopter in Afghanistan.
A need for speed came out of the Vietnam War also, and resulted in the US Army's 212kt Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne compound helicopter. But development difficulties, cost overruns and a roles and missions dispute with the US Air Force led to its cancellation. The Army ended up with the AH-64 Apache, and helicopter speeds stayed pretty much unchanged.
AH-56 (Photo: 1000aircraftphotos.com, Jan Visschedijk Collection)
Now the call for speed is being heard again, and the problem is how to respond. There are no new helicopter programs on the books, or even on the horizon until beyond 2025. Some, like Sikorsky with its X2 Technology, argue it needs a new design to take full advantage of speed and are willing to wait. Others, like Piasecki with its X-49 SpeedHawk, believe today's helicopters can be upgraded and want to get on with it.
Speed is high on the list of needs coming out of the Pentagon's Future Vertical Lift capabilities-based assessment (FVL CBA), which is intended to draw up a science and technology investment plan to support the Pentagon's future rotorcraft. Increased speed is a big piece of two "relatively certain" requirements identified by the study - high-speed VTOL insertion/extraction and multirole ISR/attack.
The problem with the FVL CBA for some in the industry is it's only looking beyond 2020. This is deliberate, to avoid being sidelined by efforts to protect existing helicopter production programs, which run out to about 2018. But with the Army planning block upgrades that will keep the AH-64D and UH-60M in service well past 2025, there seems little opportunity to insert new technology.
X2 (Photo: Sikorsky)
Sikorsky, which hopes to fly its company-funded X2 coaxial-rotor demonstrator to 250kt by year-end, says it could deliver a new high-speed helicopter by around 2018 at the earliest. Piasecki says it could compound the Black Hawk sooner and cheaper, but is struggling to get the funding needed to prove its X-49 demonstrator can safely fly beyond 200kt.