Flashback to September 1990: Civil Tiltrotor Politics, Potential and Prerequisites

By S.L. Fuller | April 19, 2017
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This image originally appeared in the September 1990 issue of R&WI.

This image originally appeared in the September 1990 issue of R&WI.

This article was originally published in the September 1990 issue of R&WI, and has been edited to comply with current grammar and style guidelines. Look for our special 50th Anniversary edition of the magazine in June 2017, where we'll celebrate the past 50 years — and look ahead to the next 50 years —of rotorcraft innovations.


“You have to be brain-dead not to appreciate the technology.”


That sentiment, voiced by a speaker at a recent R&WI-sponsored seminar titled, “Tiltrotor technology — Challenges and Opportunities,” represents — admittedly with extreme zeal — the sentiment of civil tiltrotor (CTR) supporters.

More than 100 of those supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., at R&WI’s second CTR seminar. They came to continue a dialogue started at the seminar a year ago — but in a somewhat different atmosphere.

At the 1989 event, anxiousness pervaded the air. That session was held, after all, only days after Defense Secretary Richard Cheney announced his decision to cancel the U.S. Marine Corps’ Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor program. Tiltrotor technology’s future then was in grave doubt.

During the 1990 seminar, the V-22’s status was unchanged; the program was still canceled, and there was still doubt. But the mood at the one-day event had shifted to one of guarded optimism and determination. Optimism that, with sufficient persuasion, Congress will see fit to reinstate the V-22 program — and determination to proceed with efforts to develop CTR markets and infrastructure, regardless of the V-22’s status.

Recognizing, however, that politics greatly surround the V-22 (and, therefore, CTR’s future) the seminar was held at the Capital Hill area, closer to the decision-makers determining the program’s future. What’s more, it was preceded by a cocktail reception in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where congressmen, senators and Capitol Hill staffers mingled with seminar attendees and members of the tiltrotor industry.

On the following day, Rep. Curt Weldon and Rep. Pete Geren spoke at the seminar luncheon, providing some insight of the arguments being made in Congress on the Osprey’s behalf. While Geren listed the commercial benefits of tiltrotor technology — relieving air congestion, providing quick transport service in remote regions, joining the war on drugs, etc. — Weldon explained why funding for the U.S. military’s Osprey program should continue.

The V-22 program is not an example of “pork-barrel politics,” said Weldon, responding to an oft-heard criticism of military programs. The Marines need new aircraft; and the issue, Weldon argued, is which aircraft will best serve the service’s needs. (An alternative plan would have the service acquire a mix of Sikorsky H-60s and H-53s.)

The Pennsylvania congressman, who is also the chairman of a support group, the Tiltrotor Technology Coalition, does not blame Dick Cheney for the V-22’s cancellation. He believes the Defense Secretary “received bad advice” from Assistant Secretary of Defense (Program Analysis and Evaluation) David S.C. Chu.

Weldon subsequently told an R&WI reporter that Cheney might be willing to change his mind of the V-22. The Secretary could, Weldon speculated, justify his modified view by noting favorable results from the recent Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA) report on the Osprey.

Weary of politics

But Washington politics surrounding V-22 is wearing thin with some tiltrotor proponents. Frank J. Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, called government decision –making concerning the V-22 “a mess” because of the Dept. of Defense’s failure to examine the program in sufficient detail prior to deciding on its termination.

“That’s because of a definite resistance in the [Defense Dept.] to consider civilian uses of this technology,” said Gaffney, a former Defense assistant secretary during the Reagan administration. “A great antipathy enters the equitation when this is bought up. It’s a narrow, parochial view.”

Gaffney also indicated it was “incredible” that no supporting words for the CTR’s potential came from the Commerce and Transportation secretaries, despite support for tiltrotors in the recent transportation blueprint released by the Dept. of Transportation.

Nuts-and-bolts issues

While Gaffney commented on tiltrotor politics, other seminar speakers wrestled with the nuts-and-bolts issues of CTR infrastructure development, operating costs and affordability, and market potential throughout the world.

One part of the world, the Caribbean, offers considerable potential, according to Dr. Ted Lane, project director the Puerto Rican/Caribbean tiltrotor study. Lane said he believes and inter-Caribbean V-22 service could be operated quite cheaply, perhaps at 18 cents a mile, compared to the current 13 per mile of existing airlines.

He proposed as a model operation flying an Osprey prototype between factories in the Caribbean region It would provide “just-in-time” (JIT) inventory shuttles, and serve as a reliable transportation system for multinational companies based there.

Incentives for factory owners to set up in the region are strong, said Lane. (Wages in the Dominican Republic, for instance, are $6 per day.) But the lack of reliable cargo capability remains a hindrance. Lane and his associates polled 20 Caribbean plant managers. All expressed enthusiasm for the CTR.

One of Lane’s plans would have V-22s transport passengers by day and cargo by night. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is, in fact, considering a CTR demonstration project.

This island-specked region isn’t the only place where CTR prospects heat up. Another seminar speaker, Graham Roe, British Aerospace’s manager for U.S. Business, said studies in Europe indicate a vast potential market, predicated on increased congestion within existing networks.

Roe reminded the audience that Europe was once a hotbed of studies into VTOL transport. The studies were choked off by rising world oil prices in the 1970s.

Roe’s research reveals the CTRs could now carry at least 2 million passengers a year over two heavily traveled routes: between London and Paris, and London and Glasgow.

Meanwhile, in Canada, CTR operations are also being considered, according to S.J. Stein, president of Airport Planning Associates Inc., Montreal. The Canadian government is currently conducting a CTR study, according to Stein. He also said a report, summarizing its findings, is due out this October. Those findings, he added, generally favor CTR operations in two main corridors, in the east and the west of Canada.

Changes in Canadian-U.S. relations, as a result of free-trade negotiations, could impact CTR use by extending routes southward. One piece of news from Stein: Montreal has committed to developing a downtown heliport. “This will include planning for a CTR,” he said.

More than kudos

The R&WI-sponsored seminar offered more than glowing reports of CTR potention, however. The vent’s sagacious presenters also pointed ot the obstacles this new form of air transport must hurdle.

John Finley, managing director of Feeder Aircraft Operations for Federal Express Corp. (FEC), cautioned “there is substantial downside risk in a technology that could still have bugs in it.” He also questioned the V-22’s ability to operate in icing environments, and whether costs can be absorbed during the CTR’s introductory phase.

We are very “pro” for the technology’s development, said Finley, speaking for FEC. “But there are also lots of questions that must be answered before we can judge whether it will be cost effective or not,” he said.

The Fed-Ex official also asserted that “the Osprey woud have to be used in innovative ways to capitalize on the technology. It must be a time machine … and must not be thought of as just an adjunct to a trunk system or as a standard part of a bug-and-spoke network. If you tie it to an airport, it stinks beyond any reasonable concept of profitability.”

Might FEC volunteer to explore CTR potential with a prototype service?

“Some sort of test program on a small scale is obviously called for, and we have discussed it with the appropriate industry and govern personnel,” Finley said. “But from our standpoint, if FEC were to participate in something of that nature, it would have to be on a basis where our customers were not put at risk. And it has to prove innovative concepts, not just that the airplane can fly [from] A to B.”

RAA viewpoint

Deborah McElroy, VP of the Regional Airline Assn. (RAA), also voiced skepticism, especially regarding the CTR’s short-term attraction to her organization’s members: 150 regional airlines operating 1,900 aircraft. Her comments, though perhaps appropriate, may not endear her to the rotary-wing community, though. To RAA, she said at the seminar, a CTR comes encumbered with a poor economic image of helicopters.

Additionally, McElroy stated that regional airlines “won’t want to become some type of guinea pig” for CTR development.

Still, not discarding tiltrotor technology, the RAA VP said the CTR fro the commuter market would “baseline out” around 36 to 44 seats, although RAA passengers exhibit “great sensitivity” to price.

“We hear objections if the price rises in the $9-$17 per-seat-mile range,” she said. “CTR seat-per-mile prices look as it they are somewhere around $40, and that’s a problem.”

McElroy implied that promoting shorter total-journey times as a benefit of CTR ravel would be a “very hard sell” in today’s commuter market, and said a V-22 commuter aircraft’s near-term prospects are questionable.

“I guess our members are adopting a wait-and-see approach,” she concluded. “They’ll want tot see it operate in the military first.”

Complaints in California

Not everyone agreed that a CTR couldn’t compete in the commuter market. Warren Ferrell of the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG), said it now costs $500 to fly from Sacramento to Los Angeles one way. “No tiltrotor fare could cost that much,” he commented.

Airline rates have become a heated topic in California. Indeed, Golden State residents complained so loudly about their airline service that legislation was recent drawn up to start a state-owned regional airline. The measure was voted down, but revealed an apparent air-travel problem.

Agreeing with Ferrell was Dr. Peter Corning, senior partner with Corning and Associates In., which conducted a survey for SCAG. He reported that a high number of survey respondents favored paying 50 cents a mile for CTR service provided it was close to where they lived. Most respondents desired links between points throughout Southern California and Los Angeles airport.

“Our results were encouraging,” said Corning. “We found a high consumer expectation.”

Phase-two report

Though a CTR’s costs or affordability have yet to be determined, Pete Thompson, marketing research manager at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, provided some indicative data. Presenting results from phase two of a CTR study sponsored by NASA, FAA and Bell Boeing, he reported that, with routes at 200-nm lengths, CTR transport could cost only about $15 per passenger more than by turboprop airplane. Factor in savings gained by offering portal-to-portal service, he continued, and the cost difference “comes out as a wash.”

Phase two also addressed CTR operating costs. According to Thompson, the share attributed to maintenance coast can be reduced by $16 per passenger on a given 200-nm trip, down to $10 from the estimates made in phase one.

The study concludes that a viable CTR would have from 30 to 50 seats, and operate over 600-nm distances, on average. Concerning market potential, Thompson said, “The world is a short-haul world — dramatically so.” Estimates suggest a worldwide need for some 1,000 CTRs, or about 6% of the world airliner market.

But there is, according to the TR study, a prerequisite to viable CTR market: a network of vertiports from the start.

Enter the FAA-funded vertiport study groups, which hope to help establish such a network. Representatives of these groups gathered to compare notes in a meeting that followed the R&WI-sponsored seminar.

Perhaps the single, most promising vertiports project is in Dallas. Chris Basham, VP of a Dallas architectural firm, Charles Wills Associates, described what he calls “the nation’s first vertiport,” being build at the Dallas Convention Center.

Costing between $10 million and $12 million, this new facility would accommodate up to 12 helicopters and four CTRs. It would have two landing pads, which could also serve as a 360-foot “rollway” for STOL aircraft. Basham said the facility should be completed by 1996, in time for the next Helicopter Assn. International (HAI) conference in Dallas.

But currently, tiltrotor technology’s future still lies not in Dallas, Southern California, Canada or the Caribbean — but in Washington, D.C., where tiltrotor politics rage on.

Positioned in the eye of that political storm is Col. Jim Schaefer, the Marine Corps’ V-22 program manager. By his own admission, he skirted an outright endorsement for the Osprey, commenting instead of why a tiltrotor would best service the Marine Corps’ assault-lift requirements.

Helicopter reliability is such today, he said, that battle plans must often be changed when it is “too we, too snowy or too dark.” In addition to surmounting these obstacles, Schaefer added, the V-22 would have about a “four-to-one” reliability advantage. The Marine Corps officer listed other Osprey benefits, including ballistic tolerance, crashworthiness and range.

“We could be anywhere we like in 60 hours, operating as covertly as we want,” he said. “It is a strategic asset, as well as a tactical one.”

From another branch of the federal government, Lt. Col. Jim McDaniel, the FAA’s director of the Vertical Flight Program Office, outlined points made by Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner. McDaniel said the Dept. of Transportation decided the FAA would not run any tiltrotor demonstration program. But if such a program evolves, the agency would willingly cooperate and help coordinate the effort.

Close cooperation between government and the private sector may well be the solution to CTR and infrastructure development,. It apparently worked for the dinner speaker who capped the CTR seminar: Ross Perot Jr. The entrepreneur/real-estate developer (and first person to fly a helicopter around the world) outlined how his Alliance Airport project in Fort Worth, Texas, succeeded through government (at various levels) and private-sector collaboration. Tenants at his ambitious project, incidentally, include Ishida Corp, developers of the TW-68 tiltwing, a sister to the tiltrotor and possible competitor.

More suffering needed

Tiltrotor technology is appreciated; most people aren’t brain dead. But public acceptance still obviously remains beyond reach. American Helicopter Society Executive Director John Zugschwert, who served as seminar moderator, perhaps summed it up best:

“The key a tiltrotor offers is convenience. The fact that this message has not been getting through is, I think, because the traveling public probably hasn’t suffered enough yet,” he said.

No doubt that time will come.

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