Military, Products

Pushing the Envelope

By R&W Staff | June 1, 2005

AHS' annual meeting in Texas this month takes a broad view of technologies affecting the future of vertical flight.

When members gather from around the world for its annual forum and technology display this month in Grapevine, Texas, they will find the American Helicopter Society International pushing the envelope a bit.

The yearly meeting of technical specialists and experts in rotorcraft will open with a special session on a developing aircraft of the fixed-wing variety--the U.S. and international F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one version of which is being developed with a short-takeoff/vertical landing capability.

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The opening session on the Joint Strike Fighter fits with the theme of AHS' Forum 61, which is "New Frontiers in Vertical Flight." The annual event is among the world's most respected gatherings of pilots, engineers, program managers, educators and students and corporate executives focused on the advancement of vertical flight technology--and not just that involving helicopters carrying humans.

The Joint Strike Fighter session also is a timely one. That aircraft program is in the political and public spotlight. Costs for the program have been rising steadily as its managers and engineers struggle to overcome weight challenges in designing and building the fighter. Some estimates put total costs now at more than $257 billion for a program to produce more than 3,500 aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. (More, presumably, would be bought by the program's international partners--Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. None of the partners has yet committed to acquiring the new aircraft, though.)

The fighter is intended to replace, among other aircraft, the F-16, more than 4,400 of which have been sold around the world.

Auditors with the U.S. General Accountability Office, in a recent report, said rising costs have made the program "unexecutable." But the fighter's contractors vow they will deliver the aircraft on budget.

"We flat out disagree with the government and the GAO," Tom Burbage, a former navy test pilot who is program director for Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the F-35 program. Burbage is among those scheduled to speak at the session that begins at 8 a.m. on June 1. Others on the panel include John C. McKeown, the U.S. Navy's F-35 technical director; Rear Adm. Steven L. Enewold, the Navy's Joint Strike Fighter program director, Bill Gostic of Pratt & Whitney and Robert Griswold, representing the GE Aircraft Engines-Rolls-Royce team that is developing the powerplant for the short-takeoff/vertical landing F-35. (Those engines are shown above undergoing testing.) The primary customer for that aircraft is the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Air Force is to get a conventional takeoff/landing version, while the Navy would get a carrier-based version.

The society also will maintain its focus on developments involving unmanned aerial vehicles and their implications for the rotorcraft industry. A special session of the forum, to be held June 2 from 1:30-5:30 p.m., titled "Intelligent Autonomy," will draw on the recent, highly successful Specialists' Meeting on Unmanned Rotorcraft: Design, Control and Testing hosted by AHS' Arizona Chapter in January.

A hot topic of conversation at the forum is certain to be the U.S. Army's announcement of a competition for a new, joint heavy-lift helicopter. The Army issued notice of the competition on April 28, and interested bidders have until June 27 to respond. The Army expects to let 3-5 contracts by the third quarter of this year to define concepts for that aircraft, and to whittle the competition down to two prototype contenders by 2011.

Another hot topic will be the status of U.S. funding for rotorcraft R&D, or the lack of it, and the status of efforts to fight for more money.

Forum 61 attendees will be offered briefings on the status of the Army's efforts to "transform" its aviation operations and units, developments with Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and operations, key developments in the vertical/short takeoff arena, and deliberations of the Pentagon's newly-created Joint Vertical Flight Task Force and how rotorcraft will fit into the overall transformation of the U.S. military services.

The Gaylord Texan Resort Hotel offers a convenient setting for this year's conference, with the convention center just a short, covered walk from guest rooms and several restaurants and bars under one roof on its grounds.

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