Commercial, Regulatory

Flashback to June 1987: The Tiltrotor and Heliport Growth

By Kathy Kocks | September 15, 2017
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This article was originally published in the June 1987 issue of R&WI and has been edited to comply with current grammar and style guidelines. Check out our special June 2017 50th anniversary edition of the magazine, in which we celebrate the past 50 years — and look ahead to the next 50 — of rotorcraft innovations.

Kathy Kocks 1987 column

This image originally appeared in the June 1987 issue of R&WI.

Tiltrotor aircraft stir the imagination and fuel the interest of more than futurists. Although naysayers still comprise a large group, a swelling and influential tiltrotor crowd — which includes the FAA, airport, airline and U.S. Department of Defense higher-ups — perceives a growing need for a ship of its capabilities. U.S. studies and European programs on a commercial tiltrotor attest to the probability of its production.


Anyone interested in heliport development should be equally enthusiastic about a civil tiltrotor. Its development could significantly benefit the helicopter industry’s efforts gain city-center public-use heliports. How?

First, let’s look at what the tiltrotor signified to the people most likely o bring about its civil production — those who manage, regulate and operate in the commercial airway and airport system.

Offering a “best of both worlds,” the tiltrotor mates helicopter agility, slow airspeed and vertical flight with fixed-wing speed and range.

While operators find this a major attraction, many airport operators, airlines and aviation transportation planners regard as more significant its potential to relieve congestion on airport approach/departure routes and runways — and in terminals and on the roads leading to and from airports.

Transferring traffic

The tiltrotor isn’t viewed as a means to alleviate airport runway traffic by landing at an on-airport heliport, rather than the already crowded runways. It is regarded as a means to remove entirely about 30% of the traffic from today’s busy commercial-service airports and from the ground transportation infrastructure that connects the airport to the city center.

That percentage represents the estimated short-haul traffic flying within the projected 500-nm range of a civil tiltrotor.

For airlines operating in a deregulated industry, where competition has seen many operations spring up and fail or be sold, the tiltrotor’s range, speed and VTOL capabilities open new markets to cities not having the ability or public support to build capital- and land-intensive commercial-service airports. The market potential is there, based on a recent FAA forecast for a decade of strong growth in regional and commuter operations. The greatest expansion is expected for operations with routes of less than 200 miles and those that develop new service to small communities.

Where’s this tiltrotor-toted short-haul traffic going to land? Downtown, near urban centers, close to the central business district.

Looking at the two U.S. tiltrotor studies just ending (one by the FAA, NASA and U.S. Department of Defense,; the other by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), both view the aircraft not as an airport-to-airport transportation mode, but as a city-center to city-center one. Of the five mission scenarios examined in the FAA/NASA/Defense study, the high-density city-center to city-center commuter was No. 1.

Across the Atlantic, Europe’s EUROFAR tiltrotor program proposal assumes the same conclusion. It terms the tiltrotor’s infrastructure as “one of the key points of the EUROFAR system” and states: “The implementation of this communication system [i.e. the tiltrotor] will imply equipping heliports and their surroundings, especially in urban locations…” Further it states, “Basically the objective will be to permit all-weather flight and IFR (instrument landing) approaches in an urban environment.”

Whether you call it a tilt-port, shuttleport or vertiport, the resultant downtown facility called for is a heliport.

Both studies indicate that a tiltrotor aircraft will do more than foster city-center facilities. The advent of a tiltrotor in civil circles will require changes in air traffic control and navigation procedures. Both U.S. and European tiltrotor forces strongly argue this requirement. The opinion is that the tiltrotor will be anew transportation mode, which will require an infrastructure vastly different from the fixed-wing system.

In the view of these parties, for a tiltrotor to achieve its full potential, it must take congestion from the airports and transport it to the proper downtown destination.

Of good news for the helicopter community is that the tiltrotor’s requirements closely parallel those needed — and long called for — by the helicopter community.

But will a civil tiltrotor be developed? Does the world need this new transportation mode and its infrastructure?

Critical mass

Since at least the 1940s, aerospace engineers and prophets, if you will, have proclaimed the sense and sensibility of a tiltrotor-type aircraft. Two factors kept its “coming” from coming: lack of advanced technology to build it and lack of need. The technology, evidenced by the NASA/Bell Helicopter/U.S. Army XV-15 (called by the EUROFAR team “the most-fruitful proof-to-concept in the world aeronautical history”) is here. The V-22 Osprey, which in a civil version could transport about 31 passengers, is in full-scale development and scheduled for a first flight next year.

For the other half of the formula, “need,” one only has to look at U.S. commercial-service airports, which are rapidly approaching critical mass. A number of factors are working to almost ensure a revolution in how the nation flies and in the shape of the airports network.

From 1982 to 1986, U.S. commercial air-passenger traffic increased 41%; the FAA is predicting another 26% increase over the next five years. Other than traffic problems, the nation’s 51 commercial-service airports, many located within built-up areas, do not have land available for expansion. Unable to expand Stapleton, Denver is to build a replacement airport about 20 miles away; there is no land available to expand Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartsfield, Los Angeles’ International and St. Louis’ Lambert Field, to name a few.

Federal monies to fund airport development and expansion are uncertain, as the airport and airway improvement act, which set up the aviation trust fund, expires this fall. The proposed two-year re-authorization legislation is seen by many aviation planners as counterproductive, making long-range planning (typically in five-year periods) impossible. Additionally, a $12.2 billion air traffic control modernization program, to meet next century’s air traffic needs, strains the ability of the FAA to fund significant airport development.

Free enterprise in commercial aviation — brought on by federal deregulation of the airlines — has greatly affected airport capacity as new airlines sprung up, price wars ensued, and peak-hour scheduling increased. Commercial airlines bristle at any hint of a return to federal regulation. Any hint — and there are some — from the FAA to restrict access to major airports, has general aviation forces growling also.

The seriousness of this problem forced the FAA to establish the Airport Capacity Program Office. Its 1986 airport-capacity enhancement plan outlines no less than 53 projects to reduce capacity-related problems.

Impact of Osprey

In the face of all this, the U.S. Department of Defense decides to build the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. This takes an experimental craft — the XV-15 — into the practical-application world. It also means Uncle Sam will share the load on a lot of the developmental costs. World airline manufacturers take notice; the U.S.’s Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. takes action, funding part of the NASA/FAA/Defense study. Capacity-stressed airport operators take notice; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey takes action — first a tiltrotor visit, then a forum, then a full-fledged feasibility study. Why?

“We would welcome a major breakthrough to expand capacity significantly and the FAA, NASA and the port authority believe that the tiltrotor aircraft offers that potential,” said Port Authority Chairman Philip Kaltenbacher.

The port authority and the Eastern Region of the FAA are serious in their interest in a civil ship. A strong and congested market already exists between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Also existing is the skeletal beginnings of a city-center heliport infrastructure — Boston has a new public-use commercial-service heliport; the New York metropolitan area has four public-use heliports and will probably see the reopening of Flushing Airport as a heliport within the year; while Washington, D.C., has no heliports, a new airport authority has just taken the operational reins of Dulles and National airports; and Philadelphia has a downtown heliport, Penn’s Landing, and is working toward a larger facility just south of the existing one.

Now that this column has argued why a tiltrotor will probably be built, it will be tempered with why it might not. A new aircraft is an expensive item to develop and certify. Unproven to the public, it presents marketing challenges. It must offer great benefit in exchange for these factors. In theory, the tiltrotor offers great benefit.

But, for the tiltrotor to fulfill its promise and develop fully its potential for reducing capacity, it must have its own infrastructure. This requires cooperation and coordination among many parties. It requires air traffic control procedures that exploit its unique capabilities. It requires proper facilities and, in today’s terms, that means heliports.

If the tiltrotor is forced into fixed-wing flight procedures and facilities, the transportation sector will have spent foolishly the promise the civil tiltrotor offers — just as it has thus done with helicopters.

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