More Advanced Helicopter Technology

18 June 2011


The Eurocopter X3 is an experimental compound helicopter under development by Eurocopter. It is intended to fly at speeds of over 220 knots (250 mph; 410 km/h)

The Eurocopter X3 is an experimental compound helicopter under development by Eurocopter. It is intended to fly at speeds of over 220 knots (250 mph; 410 km/h) from Wikipedia.

Recently in Stealth Helicopter Technology I discussed some widely noted features of the helicopters used during the Bin Laden hit which seemed to be aiming at stealth operations. Ordinary helicopters are very loud and given plenty of warning of their presence, so that a stealth helicopter would have significant advantages in terms of surprise.

Now it seems that several helicopter manufacturers are working on other advanced helicopter technologies aimed at overcoming retreating blade stall and getting their birds to fly faster. The BBC story Helicopter with wings promises to change aviation world discussed the new Eurocopter X3. The BBC story also mentioned the Sikorsky X2, which had earlier topped 250 knots cruising speed.

Sikorsky S2

The Eurocopter X3 and the Sikorsky X2 are being called “superfast” helicopters, those the two machines employ very different technologies. The Eurocopter X3 has a rotor on top and an extra sent of wings and engines for flight like a fixed wing aircraft once the rotor was gotten the chopper in the air. The Sikorsky X2 uses coaxial contra-rotating rotors, like the Russian Kamov Ka-52. It should also be noted that the V-22 Osprey also belongs in this class of aircraft that seek to combine the flexibility of helicopters with the speed of fixed wing aircraft.

V-22 Osprey

Although the V-22 Osprey is currently deployed, it has had a troubled operational history. The idea is dead simple, and I can’t myself see why it has been so difficult to get the aircraft to function as intended. A contra-rotating coaxial rotor would seem to me to present greater engineering challenges that a tiltrotor. I expect that tiltrotor technology will be refined and improved over time, though the reputation of the V-22 has limited the efficacy of the aircraft because it is more or less seen as a deathtrap, and no one would want to take a problematic design into combat.

I view these innovative helicopter technologies with the greatest of interest, not least because I have speculated (in The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier) that helicopters have great room for improvement, and that, once helicopter technologies become sufficiently advanced and robust, we can see the day coming when helicopters will take over the role of tanks as the armored spearhead of an advancing military force.

Even the best combat helicopters remain vulnerable to relatively inexpensive counter-measures. The Somali militias that attacked US forces in Mogadishu — in the story that become Black Hawk Down — studied the movements of US soldiers prior to engaging them, and determined that their Achilles Heel was the helicopter. Once the Black Hawks were downed with RPGs the US forces had to fight their way through the city.

Thus there remains much room for improvement in helicopter stealth, speed, and survivability. Note that the above-referenced “superfast” helicopters are capable of about 250 knots. While this is an improvement over previous helicopter technology, a Nakajima Ki-84 fixed wing fighter from the Second World War could travel at 340 knots, so it is easy to see that helicopters are never going to rival fixed wing aircraft in terms of speed; helicopters have a very different role to play than that secured by speed.

I would look for further (mostly incremental) improvements in stealth, speed, and survivability, as well as the testing of innovative designs such as those mentioned above. I would also look for improvements in armor (which could be considered an aspect of survivability) and in the design, orientation, and placement of the engines that would also afford greater survivability under combat conditions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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