The Future of Rotorcraft, and of Sikorsky?

By Staff Writer | July 1, 2015
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The S-97 flies for the first time at the Sikorsky Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., May 22.
Photo courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft

As Sikorsky Aircraft makes advances towards fielding the next generation of rotorcraft, its parent company is weighing what the future will hold for that vertical-lift pioneer.

The firm founded by Igor Sikorsky in 1923 reached its latest milestone May 22, when the S-97 Raider made its first flight. Fewer than three weeks later, top executives and the board of directors of its parent company met to discuss other aerospace companies’ interest in taking over Sikorsky.


The Raider is intended to build on the success of Sikorsky’s 250-knot-plus X2 Technology Demonstrator by establishing that an operational rotorcraft can fly that fast. (The S-97 weighs about twice as much as the 6,000-pound X2.) It is also part of an effort to reduce risk in the SB-1 Defiant that Sikorsky and Boeing proposed for the U.S. Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator, a precursor to development of the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) family of military aircraft.

S-97 No. 1’s first flight began at about 7 a.m. local time from the Sikorsky Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. The flight was planned to hit 97 test points during a 30-minute-plus flight to explore the new design’s airworthiness in the low-speed flight environment.

Instead, S-97 Chief Pilot Bill Fell flew the coaxial, rigid-rotor aircraft for roughly one hour at a top speed of 10 knots, executing three takeoffs and landings and forward, rearward and lateral flight.

Co-pilot Kevin Bredenbeck, who was the X2 chief pilot, said it was “quite the aggressive test card.” Among the aggressive factors was completion of a full range of domain testing for natural frequencies of key components like the drive train and rotor system—high-risk testing that is not always done on a first flight.

“We really placed a big bet here” with the S-97, said Mark Miller, Sikorsky vice president of research and engineering. The bet? That the Raider’s “game-changing capabilities” will “open some eyes and change some thoughts on how soon they’d like to introduce this” into Army and special forces inventories. Sikorsky hopes the Army will recognize the value of an aircraft that could keep up with the Bell-Boeing V-22 and be an earlier option for FVL, whose first aircraft will be fielded around 2030.

Despite the S-97’s promise (and the fact that Sikorsky has contracts to produce hundreds of utility and combat search-and-rescue versions of the H-60 and the new CH-53K heavy-lifter for the U.S. military), parent company United Technologies Corp.

wants to unload the aircraft maker by about year’s end. In mid-June, UTC executives and directors met to review options for doing that. The media reported interest coming from Textron and Airbus, as well as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The latter also is a Sikorsky partner.

Textron’s units include Bell Helicopter and Textron Aviation (which brings together the Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker fixed-wing brands).

On June 15—the opening day of the Paris Air Show—UTC announced its decision to pursue the separation of Sikorsky from its parent company. By the end of the third quarter, UTC will decide whether Sikorsky, currently valued at about $8 billion, will be spun off or sold directly to another company. A properly structured spinoff could help avert a $3 billion tax bill on UTC’s gains on Sikorsky, which or its predecessors have owned since mid-1929.

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