Speed, range, load – this is what is required today from universal aircraft that are ready to work “in civilian life” and serve in the army.
Despite the fact that a number of very good helicopters are currently being produced, technical progress does not stand still. The military is also not sitting still, who, based on the combat experience of local conflicts of recent years, began to make completely different demands on helicopters.
It would seem that the American Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which has become a real workhorse for the American army and navy, is good for everyone. But American generals no longer think so. First, the helicopter turned 40 this year. And secondly, the speed of the Black Hawk, even with a small load, does not exceed 300 km / h. This will not work, the American generals decided and announced that from 2030 the UH-60 Black Hawk would be withdrawn from service. The Pentagon announced a competition for its successor, one of the main requirements for which was a maximum speed one and a half times greater than that of the Black Hawk. Along the way, other parameters were voiced, at first glance, rather difficult to implement: a carrying capacity of 4500 kg and a flight range of at least 4000 km or 2500 miles. That is, for all indicators, the successor to the UH-60 Black Hawk should drastically outperform it. American concerns are well aware of how profitable it is to deal with the Pentagon, so without much delay, two opposing factions immediately entered the fray: Bell joined forces with the aerospace concern Lockheed Martin, and helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky enlisted the support of such a giant as Boeing.
Sikorsky and Boeing predictably developed the SB-1 Defiant helicopter, while Bell and Lockheed Martin presented the V-280 Valor tiltrotor for testing. The latter pleasantly surprised the American military with a “maximum speed” of 556 km/h, as well as a number of other bonuses, for example, a convenient landing ramp. Along the way, Bell took into account the mistakes made in the development of its previous tiltrotor V-22 Osprey, and made the V-280 Valor technically simpler. For example, the wing was made not swivel, like the V-22 Osprey, but fixed – only the rotors turn. The widespread use of composites reduced the weight, and the price turned out to be less. The V-280 Valor met other requirements as well. The car made its first flight in December 2017, and in May of this year it completed all tests and is ready to appear before the military.
The first flight of a competitor, the SB-1 Defiant, took place only in March 2019, but Sikorsky and Boeing promise to complete all tests by early 2020, when the military begins to consider all the strengths and weaknesses of the applicants. The weaknesses of the SB-1 Defiant include the old T55 engines, insufficient flight range and a maximum speed of 460 km/h. At the same time, according to the “maximum speed”, the helicopter met the requirements of the technical specifications, and the problem with the flight range is also solved due to new, more economical engines.
So all the disadvantages of the SB-1 Defiant that exist today can be eliminated in the near future. But the brainchild of Sikorsky and Boeing has much more advantages. The fuselage of the helicopter is completely made of composites, which will positively affect its durability. Due to the use of a coaxial scheme with two rigid main rotors and a rear pusher propeller, it will be much more maneuverable than the V-280 Valor. And this is a very important quality for a military helicopter. In addition, in the future, on the basis of the SB-1 Defiant, it is possible to develop an attack helicopter, which should certainly be of interest to the US military. After all, the main attack helicopter of the US Army AH-64 Apache celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, and the day when the “Indian” will have to retire is not far off. And here they can quickly and without special expenses prepare a successor with the best characteristics. In addition, the military is accustomed to trusting helicopters more than convertiplanes: the operation of the V-22 Osprey in the army can hardly be called successful, and the technicians generally disliked him for his capricious temper. However, it cannot be ruled out that both applicants will be adopted.
This year, the Italian-British convertible AgustaWestland AW609 should enter the market. This aircraft has been developed for almost twenty years by Bell and a number of partners, among which was AgustaWestland. Which, as a result of various kinds of collisions, completed the development of the tiltrotor alone, since Bell withdrew from the joint venture in 2011 and focused on more promising projects. The first European tiltrotor is intended not for the military, but for civilian customers, and AgustaWestland currently has about 70 orders.
The finalization of the machine took considerable time, as the developers could not solve a number of problems. Despite the fact that the AW609 made its first flight back in 2003, the pre-production prototype crash required a major revision of the tiltrotor, which delayed the certification process for a significant period. In addition, the initial characteristics did not suit the developers, and the tiltrotor was carefully and carefully finalized for a long time. The serial AgustaWestland AW609 weighs 7260 kg, is equipped with two Pratt & Whitney engines with a total power of 3880 hp, is capable of reaching a maximum speed of 560 km / h in airplane mode, taking on board up to nine people, not counting two crew members, and has a flight range 1850 kilometers. First of all, the tiltrotor should be of interest to businessmen: having a vertical takeoff and landing, The AW609 has almost twice the speed and range of some multipurpose helicopters. True, it will be much more difficult and expensive to maintain this unique “bird” of its kind. AgustaWestland AW609 will be produced in Italy and the USA.
Helicopters are very often incorrectly called rotorcraft. If all helicopters, without exception, have propellers, then only a few have wings. But the Eurocopter X3 experimental helicopter, which made its first flight in 2010, certainly does not belong to these. At that time, the European helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter, which had not yet been absorbed by Airbus, tried to answer the question of how high-speed helicopters of the future will look like. And the fact that the future belongs to such helicopters, European helicopter manufacturers did not doubt ten years ago.
To create an experimental machine, a rather elderly EC155 Dauphin helicopter was used. For the simple reason that this helicopter set an absolute speed record back in the days of its youth – in the seventies, accelerating to 315 km / h. That is, it was originally a very high-speed car. The rear part of the tail boom was altered by amputating the Fenestron propeller, and a two-keel plumage was installed instead. In the middle part of the fuselage, small wings appeared with two engines with pulling propellers located at the ends. After several years of improvements, in 2013, the helicopter was released for final tests, in which it accelerated to a record speed of 472 km/h. And although initially optimistic statements were made that this helicopter may be of interest to rescuers, the military and the civilian market, it was decided not to launch the Eurocopter X3 series. He became just a technology demonstrator and an attempt to understand what a high-speed promising helicopter might look like.
However, some design solutions tested on the Eurocopter X3 may well be in demand in the future, when Airbus Helicopters will seriously take up the creation of a high-speed helicopter. And there is no doubt that this will happen.