The US military wants to upgrade its stable of combat choppers.
One possible model for future combat aircraft can take off and land vertically, and then fly like a traditional aeroplane. Bell’s V-280, which combines a combat helicopter’s fuselage with tilt-rotor wings, would basically be a Black Hawk that can adjust its wings to fly like a fixed-wing aircraft once it’s airborne.
The US is keenly interested in developing this kind of capability. Right now, aviation companies are competing to win contracts for the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) helicopter program, a selection process that will unfold until 2017 and help the US Army select a new multi-purpose aircraft. The V-280 could fit the bill.
The V-280’s is an early stage of development and tilt-wing aircraft have an uneven record. Making the tilt-rotor viable was a decades-long undertaking for defence researchers. That work resulted in the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey that is currently flying for the US military, although 30 people were killed in crashes during the plane’s decade-long testing period.
The Bell’s V-280 is a somewhat simpler aircraft, though. It uses fixed engines with moveable rotors and drive shafts; in the case of the Osprey, all three of these are moveable.
Ideally, tilt-rotor aircraft marry the manoeuvrability of a helicopter — which needs far less space to take off and land than any fixed-wing aircraft — with the speed and range of a plane. Bell’s fact sheet on the V-280 indicates it could carry four crew and 14 passengers, with a range of up to 800 nautical miles, beating the Black Hawk’s range by nearly 500 miles.
That would make the V-280 especially suited to evacuating injured soldiers. The aircraft could travel a considerable distance and land in inhospitable terrain.
The V-280 also has the advantage of being able to travel on its own to conflict zones. For one-way trips, the plane’s range goes up to 2,100 nautical miles, making the V-280 “strategically self-deployable,” or independent of massive transport vehicles.
Bell’s fact sheet on the V-280 emphasises its role as a support and transport aircraft rather than one designed for combat.
But in 2010, the Army’s program executive officer for aviation envisioned a new “joint multirole helicopter” that would have a “light attack scout variant.” And Bell may have plans to showcase a mock-up of the vehicle (like the one in the tweet below) in “alternating attack/MEDEVAC [medical evacuation] configurations” at an aviation summit in March, a Bell spokesperson told Business Insider.
The military is also considering adding firepower to the V-22 Osprey, yet another instance of developing the offensive capability of a tilt-rotor aircraft.
Bell’s biggest competitor for the Army contract is Boeing, its partner in the development of the V-22 Osprey.
Boeing has partnered with Sikorsky, creator of the Black Hawk, to create three aircraft based on the latter company’s X2, which in 2010 beat the world record for helicopter speed at 260 knots — or 299 miles — per hour (although that record has since been broken). The X2 gets its motive power from a tail-mounted propeller instead of just the rotors relied upon by conventional helicopters.
This video show the Sikorsky X2 warming up before beating the world record for helicopter speed in 2010.
Andy Woodward, communications manager at Bell, told Business Insider that “We will be flying a V-280 by September of 2017.”
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