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Look Ahead: Turning Point

By James T. McKenna | May 1, 2007

Will the next 40 years bring a fundamental change in vertical lift and the aircraft that fly it?

IN SOME WAYS 40 YEARS IS A LONG TIME AND IN some ways it is not.

Rotor & Wing this year marks its 40th anniversary. Four decades account for a lot of magazines (480 or so and counting for our monthly publication), with a far greater number of rotorcraft developments around the world chronicled in these pages. In August’s issue, we’ll look back at the significant developments of those two score of years, both for the industry we’ve covered and for this magazine. We welcome your input on what those most significant developments were. As always, you can e-mail or mail us with your thoughts. The addresses are listed on pages 8 and 9.

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To kick off our anniversary celebrations, we decided in this issue to take a look at what the next 40 years might bring for rotorcraft. It’s appropriate to do so this month, in which the American Helicopter Society International and the Army Aviation Assn. of America hold their annual gatherings. Those two groups represent the communities largely responsible for the advancement of rotorcraft to date — Quad A in the form of the operators who identified the most urgent needs of aircraft utility and AHS in the researchers, designers, and manufacturers who answered those needs.

By raising the question of what the next four decades might hold, we find 40 years is not such a long time. In discussing it with researchers, manufacturers, and operators, the natural frame of reference is made up of the advances of the last 40 years. Many argue we haven’t really come very far in that time.

Certainly new and improved aircraft have joined the fleet consistently through the years. But they are, in some respects, the same basic machines that were flying in 1967 — lifting payloads with one or two main rotors and limited to less than 200 kt cruise speed. Some now joke about having "century" helicopters. The CH-47 Chinook is well on track to achieve that distinction. The Huey might, too.

We’ve eked better and better performance out of successive generations of helicopters, but in an evolutionary manner. That begs two questions: how much more evolution can we extract from the basic helicopter, and is that the best we can do?

We look to answer those questions in the pages that follow, but will cut to the chase here a bit at the start. The basic helicopter of today is the best in many ways. The critical roles it plays in disaster relief, emergency medicine, and military operations are but a few examples. But technologically, it is far from being the best we can do, and there is a growing realization in the research and design communities that this is true. The mission requirements of the very near future, driven logically by the U.S. military, demand the ability to lift and land loads vertically and to transverse the space between takeoff and the load’s destination much faster than helicopters can. These demands, combined with the limits of conventional helicopter technology, are bringing this industry to a crossroads. There we will decide whether we continue tweaking what we have today or invest in the R&D that can lead us down the path to a new aircraft that is not a helicopter, not even a straightforward rotorcraft, but a vertical-lift platform.

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