As of this writing, the much-anticipated SB-1 Defiant compound helicopter has yet to break its earthly bonds. The Sikorsky-Boeing team building the aircraft has played most of the aircraft’s milestones close to the chest, both to save face as delays piled up but also at the behest of the U.S. Army, which is partially funding the development project.
Then a curious thing happened in January.
I follow all number of aviation enthusiasts, avgeeks, professional journalists and blogs on Twitter. One of the more obscure accounts, Defense Blog, often runs press releases as news without attribution and similar shady journalism. Then it tweeted an unattributed video of the SB-1 Defiant spinning its rotors during initial ground runs.
The 30-second video was posted to Twitter and the Defense Blog website with boilerplate public relations copy. I dutifully contacted a source at Sikorsky who took several weeks to get back to me. Just before the SB-1 team released an Army-approved version of the same video, the source said the companies had been sleuthing how the video got released in the first place and to a relatively unknown blog.
At the time of its unofficial release, the video was with the Army going through the drawn-out and rigorous process of checking it for classified material or company trade secrets. Aircraft often have panels removed or open during ground runs and companies worry that competitors could reverse engineer their work.
The Defiant is one of two prototype aircraft participating in the Army’s Joint Multirole Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program. The other is the Bell V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor.
Every public release of milestone news throughout Valor’s development has had photos blurred to obscure the inner workings of its tilt mechanism, which show when the rotors are turned upward. Not until it had flown about 60 hours and was finally demonstrated for the press did photos emerge showing the rotor interiors.
When I visited the Bell Advanced Flight Research Center in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year, reporters were not allowed to take photos of the Valor at all because the nose cones to its rotors had been removed for maintenance.
Defiant’s little brother, the S-97 Raider, has been flying for a couple years and has amassed significant flight hours and valuable data. I was there in West Palm Beach when the first Raider prototype was unveiled on Oct. 15, and yet the press has never been invited to see it fly.
Neither team plays around when it comes to protecting these technologies that have cost hundreds of millions of internal research and development dollars.
So, it was highly unusual for unapproved video footage to hit the internet without the Army, Sikorsky or Boeing knowing anything about how it got there. It’s still a mystery to me.
Here’s wishing the Defiant a smooth and uneventful first flight sometime soon. JMR-TD and the subsequent Future Vertical Lift program are competitions, but both aircraft have the potential to revolutionize vertical lift technology whether the Army buys one, the other or neither.