Rivals Eurocopter, U.S.-based Sikorsky and other companies are testing fast prototypes, all with an eye toward redefining the helicopter’s place in the sky and expanding its market. Eurocopter’s X3 made its public debut at the 2011 Paris Air Show.
The companies are hoping that by increasing range and boosting maximum speed to as fast as 280 miles per hour from a current high speed of 175 mph will spark increased use as emergency vehicles and as transportation for executives and workers in remote locations.
Civilian operators are intrigued by the idea of faster helicopters but worry that increasing a helicopter’s complexity will require additional maintenance or sacrifice performance in other ways. “More speed is desirable if it at least matches the payload of existing types and comes with range,” says Bob Sheffield, managing director of Shell Aircraft Ltd., the aviation unit of oil company Royal Dutch Shell, which operates some 80 helicopters world-wide.
For helicopters, the challenge of boosting speed comes from how they fly. The overhead rotor is a set of spinning wings. An airplane’ wings produce lift as the engines push the plane forward. On helicopters, increasing speed usually means spinning the rotors faster, but that is difficult because of the complex airflow around the blades.
The Sikorsky X2 in September clocked an unofficial helicopter speed record of almost 288 mph. The company recently won the prestigious Collier Trophy for the X2’s innovative design.
Sikorsky has spent $50 million to develop the one-person X2 but will retire the model after a final test flight next month. Sikorsky in October said it plans to spend millions more developing a larger fast battlefield helicopter, the S-97 Raider. The company aims to start flying the S-97 in 2014 and is targeting Pentagon sales.
Eurocopter, a unit of European Aeronautics Defense & Space Co., used elements from its existing models to keep development costs low on the X3, pronounced “X cubed”, but declines to disclose spending. To increase speed, engineers added two stubby wings with small forward-pointing propellers like on an airplane. The hybrid hit 267 mph on May 12. Eurocopter says it is gunning for efficiency and speed, not a record.
A fast helicopter would either improve performance over existing models “or create new markets, such as point-to-point commuting between medium-sized cities,” he says.