We’re not quite there with personal flying cars, but in 2018, the vision of a future where vertical-lift technologies revolutionize the way people or cargo move began to take shape in a serious way. Industry heavyweights are gearing up to build aircraft and urban infrastructure that would enable electric-vertical-takeoff-and-landing (EVTOL) aircraft to serve as taxis soaring above the congested streets below.
The U.S. military is on the cusp of adopting revolutionary new rotorcraft technologies that will rival even the introduction of the V-22 Osprey. Two very different prototype future vertical-lift designs will soon be flying, reaching speeds and maneuverability that have consistently eluded traditional helicopters.
This is a non-exhaustive review of the major events the rotorcraft industry saw over the past 12 months.
In 2018, the U.S. military began to get serious about rotorcraft modernization, and industry began in earnest to answer various services’ need for new vertical-lift platforms.
While the Army officially launched a program to develop and buy a new light attack aircraft to replace its now-retired Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed recon helicopters, the Air Force finally put up money to replace its aging Bell UH-1 Huey fleet that guards nuclear missile fields.
A team of Boeing and Leonardo helicopters were chosen in September to replace the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey fleet with 84 MH-139 helicopters under a $2.38 billion contract.
Meanwhile the Army published two solicitations for variants of its Future Vertical Lift family of advanced rotorcraft: the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLORA).
Sikorsky officially entered its S-97 Raider to compete for FARA. That aircraft resumed flight testing in 2018 after more than a year on the ground. Within the next five years, the Army wants at least two Apache-sized armed reconnaissance helicopter prototypes flying. The Army describes the desired platform as a “knife fighter” of future battlefield capabilities in a “small form factor … with maximized performance.”
Raider is the precursor of the yet-to-fly SB-1 Defiant on offer for the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) program that will feed into and inform the requirements for the U.S. Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative to develop a next-generation helicopter.
Installation of its eight rigid rotor blades is all the Defiant needs to be a complete compound helicopter scheduled for first flight before the end of 2018. It had not flown as of press time.
Bell in June gave the first public demonstration of the V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor, Defiant’s main rival for the FLORA capability set. The aircraft has exceeded 65 hours of flight testing, and Bell is marketing it as a production-ready design to replace the UH-60 Black Hawk mission of long-range assault and utility.
In October, the Army and Sikorsky celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first delivery of a UH-60 Black Hawk, perhaps the most successful military rotorcraft design of all time.
The Marine Corps took delivery in May of its first CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter after a long wait for Sikorsky to fix problems found in the main gearbox during development. Now at least 22 are in some stage of development and the existing aircraft have amassed more than 1,200 flight hours.
Commercial Aircraft Programs
The year began with a major rebranding for Bell Helicopter, which dropped “helicopter” to become simply Bell. Industry officials and analysts fought all year to not call the company Bell Helicopter, with some success. The company adopted a new logo prominently featuring a dragonfly to symbolize its goal of becoming a pioneer in all forms of vertical flight, not just helicopters.
Another name change came with Marenco Swisshelicopter’s recognition that its name was too long and that potential customers found it difficult to pronounce. In an even more dramatic truncation, the company changed its name to “Kopter” and is nearing certification of the SKYe SH09, the clean-sheet single-engine helicopter it has been developing for a decade.
Kopter now is seeing enough demand for the SH09 that company officials are planning to build hundreds of them annually within four years of gaining certification. The company has about 65 aircraft under either firm contracts or letters of intent to buy that will turn into commitments once certification is reached.
Babcock will be Airbus Helicopters’ global launch customer for the H160, although the company didn’t buy a single unit when it made the commitment. Babcock signed a five-year frame agreement for a fleet that would be used for emergency medical services (EMS) and other critical services missions starting in Europe and then across Babcock’s worldwide bases.
Helicopter EMS in the United States, Europe and Asia now claims more than half of the helicopter market, which has a total value of $26.2 billion in 2016 dollars worldwide. Despite flat sales of new EMS-configured helicopters, the sector might be the one bright spot in an industry that remains reliant on the still-moribund offshore-oil-and-gas industry.
Sales of new helicopters in the U.S. and elsewhere might be flat, but the list of preferred single-engine and light twin-engine EMS helicopters remains the same. Those include the Airbus H125, 130, 135 and 145; Bell 406, 407, 407GXP and 429; Leonardo AW169 and AW139; and the Sikorsky S-76D.
With a view to the future, Airbus froze the digital 3D design of Racer’s main subsystems in July. Those plans recently passed critical design review, allowing it and 30 or so partner aerospace engineering companies to begin component production. Final assembly of the prototype is planned to start in late 2019 with first flight planned for some time in 2020 for the aircraft that Airbus claims will meet and exceed the current helicopter speed record of 255 kt.
Air Taxi/Urban Mobility
People are not yet flying around in air taxis, but 2018 might well be the year that urban air mobility took off as an industry.
Embraer, Bell, Airbus, Uber, Boeing and XTI Aircraft have all unveiled plans to develop concept aircraft aimed at transporting people over some urban areas’ most congested cities.
Ride-sharing service Uber aims to test EVTOL vehicles in 2020, followed by a commercial aerial ride-sharing service in 2023.
Bell is the prime contractor for the air taxi to be used in Uber’s nationwide Elevate initiative, and its planned on-demand urban mobility aircraft has continued to take shape as Bell periodically announces additional vendors who will contribute to it.
Recognizing the emerging market, and need for regulation, the FAA weighed in as excited about the possibility of EVTOL air taxis in the near future, but not necessarily within the next five years, Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said at Uber’s second-annual Elevate Summit.
The FAA has granted an experimental airworthiness certificate, allowing flight testing to occur, to Workhorse Group Inc.’s SureFly “electric-hybrid helicopter,” as the company calls it. Its first flight occurred in January.
On the first day of its summit, Uber introduced the members of its new aviation division and unveiled a prototype design for what the company’s future air taxi will look like.
Airbus announced a planned first flight of its EVTOL demonstrator by year’s end. It had not flown as of press time. A subscale model of the fully electric, self-piloted demonstrator was on display at the company’s booth at Heli-Expo.
Airbus also is developing the self-piloted aircraft “Vahana” at its Silicon Valley outpost A^3 (“A cubed”). The aircraft completed its first full-scale flight test early February, and Airbus hopes to launch a product demonstrator in 2020.
Drones continue to gain acceptance — both officially and culturally — in U.S. and international skies. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimates the drone market will grow significantly in the next decade, with annual direct spending on unmanned aerial system (UAS) development rising to more than $5 billion by 2025.
The U.S. Marine Corps in 2018 began to put development dollars behind its stated desire for a high-altitude long-endurance drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.
Beating most in development of such a drone, Bell unveiled the full-size mockup of its V-247 autonomous tiltrotor in September, and it is much larger than a scale-model suggests — about the same shipboard footprint as a UH-1Y.
Lockheed Martin is readying its competing Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) unmanned aircraft for a flight demonstration. The company’s Skunk Works is teamed with Piasecki Aircraft Corp. and Sierra Nevada Corp. on a design that includes twin-tilting wing-mounted ducted fans providing vertical lift and transitioning to deliver forward thrust.
Russia got into the unmanned helicopter game when it began testing an unmanned aircraft that can perform both reconnaissance and combat functions for use by the Russian army in Syria and other hot zones, according to manufacturer Rostec. Equipped with a diesel engine, the new unmanned helicopter is built on a co-axial scheme and has a takeoff weight of up to 500 kg (1,102 lb).
As they do most years, helicopters were used in some high-profile disaster zones for search-and-rescue and humanitarian relief missions. In 2018, those included devastating floods, hurricane response and recovery, wildfire and a volcano eruption in Hawaii.
In North Carolina, the U.S. Army National Guard and Coast Guard flew hundreds of rotorcraft over floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence, delivering aid and plucking victims from the paths of rising rivers. A fleet of MH-60T Jayhawks, UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks, UH-72 Lakotas and other rotorcraft converged on North Carolina from more than dozen states to respond to the devastating flooding in the southeastern corner of the state.
Later in the year, nearly 9,000 firefighters, fixed-wing aircraft, ground equipment and 45 helicopters, including Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks and UH-60A Utility Hawks, Boeing CH-47s, Bell UH-1s and Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes, battled three wildfires across California, including Camp Fire, which has killed more than 70 people, incinerated the town of Paradise and is on record as the deadliest fire in state history.
Several high-profile crashes occurred in 2018, including the March 11 crash of an Airbus AS350B2 into New York’s East River. The helicopter was substantially damaged when it impacted the river and subsequently rolled inverted during an autorotation, killing five passengers and injuring the pilot.
A few months later, a string of fatal commercial helicopter crashes in the United States prompted a safety organization to urge pilots to take a deep breath, step back and examine their safety procedures in hopes of stemming the deadly run of summer mishaps.
A helicopter crash in Williamsburg, Virginia, inspired the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) to issue a statement in late summer marking “the worst 10-day stretch of fatal accidents [in the U.S.] since late 2012.” In an open letter to the U.S. helicopter community, the team referred to the four fatal accidents that occurred from June 29 to July 8 in Texas, Puerto Rico, Indiana and Virginia. Each caused one fatality, a pace of nearly one fatal accident every other day.
Disaster struck in October when a Leonardo AW169 crashed outside the Leicester City football club’s stadium, killing the team’s owner, the pilot and three others on board. It was the first recorded fatal accident involving an AW169. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire owner of the team since 2010, was among the passengers when the aircraft took off from King Power stadium, spun out of control and plummeted to the ground in a nearby industrial park .
In a first for the U.S. military and the problem-plagued program, an F-35 crashed in flight in September, the day after a Marine Corps F-35B made the first-ever combat sortie of any variant of the jet in Afghanistan. It was the same variant of the F-35 that crashed in coastal South Carolina. The pilot safely ejected and was taken to a medical facility for evaluation. Neither the Marine Corps, the Navy or Air Force grounded their F-35s as a result of the accident. RWI