Editor’s Notebook: Selling the Seed Corn

By James T. McKenna | September 1, 2004
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Two competitions making headlines at Farnborough raised pointed questions about the future of the U.S. rotorcraft industry.

The main event at the biennial gathering was the fight between Airbus and Boeing to be the main provider of next-generation airlines. (What, you wonder, does this have to do with helicopters? Stay with me.)

I never thought Boeing had much of a contender in this fight. Its Sonic Cruiser (intended to carry 300 passengers 9,000 n.m. at near-supersonic speeds) generated a lot of buzz, but it was impractical. Boeing then switched horses, proposing the 7E7. This Dreamliner would carry up to 250 passengers about 8,000 n.m., burning 20 percent less fuel doing it.


In Airbus' corner is the mammoth, double-decker A380, designed to carry more than 550 passengers 8,000 n.m.

Airbus has been on a steady march to dominate the commercial airline industry since the late 1980s. It developed a family of transports to address almost all of airlines' market needs. The A380 is to be the pi�ce de r�sistance, letting airlines milk money from maturing "non-gateway" international markets. (With its strategy set, Airbus is now working through its parent, EADS, to pursue opportunities with a sister subsidiary, Eurocopter, to market airliner/helicopter combinations to travel companies.)

Boeing, in the meantime, seemed to futz around, developing new aircraft that cannibalized its own market positions without attacking those of Airbus. The Sonic Cruiser and the Dreamliner looked like the latest products of that faulty strategy.

But the evidence at Farnborough was that the promise of a 20-percent lower fuel burn always appeals to the world's airlines. By applying technological advances to achieve that, Boeing might regain a lock on a critical portion of its market.

The other competition of interest at Farnborough was the fight between the Sikorsky and AgustaWestland teams to build the next U.S. presidential helicopter. Sikorsky would like that fight to be settled by a single question: "Shouldn't the American president fly an American helicopter?"

That has struck a chord with major media like CNN, which cites the Connecticut company as the "all-American" contender for VXX. About 15 months ago, I sat in a metropolitan Washington ballroom and watched the presentation of the 2002 National Aeronautics Assn.'s Robert J. Collier Trophy ("for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America"). That award went to an S-92 industry team that the Sikorksy folks emphasized included Brazil's Embraer, China's Jingdezhen Helicopter Group, Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Taiwan's AIDC and Spain's Gamesa as well as those good ole American boys, Rockwell Collins and GE. (It's notable that the press release about the award on Sikorsky's website now mentions only the American partners.)

For argument's sake, let's say that Sikorsky's is THE all-American contender. It's not, but let's grant Sikorsky's argument for the moment. That argument raises the question of whether the S-92 would be the last "all-American" to fly a U.S. president.

As our correspondent John Croft details in his feature this month, the U.S. is starving its helicopter industry of research and development. The most basic elements of understanding rotorcraft performance and design are missing, which forces upon us inefficient and very costly designs. Just $5 billion or so is what is needed to tackle key R&D shortcomings, yet the U.S. scrimps. That situation will be the death knell of a critical industry on these shores. Just ask Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough, the U.S. Marine Corps' deputy commandant for aviation.

While the insiders' view of recent combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is that they proved the value of network-centric warfare, Hough told the annual gathering of the American Helicopter Society in Baltimore this year that, in fact, those ops proved the worth of helicopters. "Rotary-wing-centric warfare was the key to our success," he said, "and it will remain so."

But he then warned that today's helicopters are too complicated and expensive to operate. That must change, he said, and everyone at the meeting agreed. But elves skulking in the night aren't going to effect that change; nor, does it appear, will the U.S. government and industry.

Boeing's Dreamliner puts in the limelight the appeal of cost-efficient aircraft to operators. Airbus' market approach spotlights the promise of a coordinated strategy of research and market development. The VXX race highlights the futility of selling your seed corn, pushing current sales while sacrificing future development.

I do not propose the U.S. should invest more in helicopter R&D because the American president should only fly an American helicopter. Rather, the American president--and every crewmember and air traveler--should fly the safest and most efficient helicopter that technology can provide. Only vigorous, and competitive, research and development can make that aircraft fly. Only with such aircraft can this industry prosper.


This month, we welcome a new columnist. Sgt. Ernie Stephens, chief pilot of the Prince George's County (Md.) Police Department, periodically will write a column on issues involving airborne law enforcement. Ernie has written for us before. If he flies as well as he writes, his crewmates, passengers and the citizens of Prince George's County are in good hands. I know you'll enjoy his contributions.

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