Commentary: Not Just Helicopters

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Commentary: Not Just Helicopters

By Mike Hirschberg, AHS International Executive Director

At the Forum 73 Grand Awards Banquet, the leaders of the major rotorcraft manufacturers and Uber Technologies’ chief of product development talked about the future of vertical flight. Uber imagines a world where on-demand transportation leverages the vertical dimension to connect people efficiently and affordably through a network of vertiports with electrically-powered VTOL aircraft. A score of companies are now developing one- to four-seat aircraft that could enable this vision. (See “Charging Forward,” pg 24.)

Left-to-right in the photo are Glenn Isbell, EVP, Bell Helicopter; Dave Koopersmith, VP/GM, Boeing Vertical Lift; Jeff Holden, Chief Product Officer, Uber; Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director, AHS; Jean-Brice Dumont, EVP/CTO Airbus Helicopters; and Daniele Romiti, Managing Director, Leonardo Helicopters. (Not shown, Mark Miller, VP, Engineering at Sikorsky, who was awarded an AHS Honorary Fellowship.)What does the future hold? We can imagine many different possible outcomes. Within the next few years, we certainly may begin to see urban air taxis shuttling people around town, like taxi cabs and Uber cars do today. In decades to come, electric VTOL aircraft, using multiple small propellers or fans, may become the norm.

The conventional helicopter will continue to be the dominant configuration in missions where hovering is critical — and particularly for external lift — for the foreseeable future. And fossil-fueled internal combustion engines (piston and turbine) certainly will remain the standard for large and long-range/endurance applications for decades to come.

Nonetheless, many types of VTOL aircraft today are vying to prove their worth.

Although AHS was founded in 1943 as the “American Helicopter Society, Inc.,” the original constitution was soon modified to include rotary-wing aircraft and then VTOL more broadly.

The current AHS bylaws say the purpose of the Society is to “advance the theory and practices of the science of vertical flight aircraft.” Looking back through the Society’s history, VTOL beyond helicopters — however you define it — has long been a central theme. By way of example, when AHS established its scholarship/educational outreach arm 50 years ago, it wasn’t called the “Helicopter Foundation” — but rather, the Vertical Flight Foundation.

In 1966, AHS initiated the Paul E. Haueter Memorial Award, “for significant contribution to the field of vertical take-off and landing aircraft other than helicopters.” LTV Aerospace was the first awardee for the four-engine XC-142A tiltwing, followed in 1967 by Hawker Siddeley Aviation for the development of the Kestrel/Harrier jump jet.

In the 1970s, the Annual Forum was called the “Annual National V/STOL Forum,” but then the Society’s leadership recognized that “National” and “American” were no longer sufficient to represent the organization, and added the word “International” below the original AHS logo. The Society began calling itself “An International Vertical Flight Organization” in 1992 and unofficially changed the name to “AHS International” in 1997 with the tagline “The Vertical Flight Society” — because “American” and “Helicopter” were far too limiting descriptors of AHS’s vision and legacy. So, like BAE Systems, CHC Helicopters, MD Helicopters, PHI and many others, the organization sought to transcend the acronym.

Past issues of Vertiflite are replete with photos and articles on non-helicopter vertical flight aircraft. And AHS became known as a leader of advocacy for tiltrotor technology in the 1990s, with my predecessor, Rhett Flater, meeting with White House, NASA and Pentagon leaders, and testifying to Congress on multiple occasions. There was no greater external advocate for the V-22 Osprey and civil tiltrotors than AHS.

I myself got involved with AHS during the early days of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, when I was a propulsion system engineer in the JSF Program Office. The three companies — Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas — were each developing supersonic short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) strike fighter concepts. From 1996 to 2002, an entire day (or more) of JSF briefings from the top leaders of the JSF Program Office formed a central part of the Annual Forum. Each of the competing airframe and propulsion companies displayed large exhibits of their latest technologies and concepts. Through the annual JSF Day at the Forum and the support to the program throughout the year, AHS played an important leadership role in promoting the technical soundness of the JSF program’s inclusion of vertical flight; AHS brought together the engineering and technical community with program, government and military leaders.

So, with the excitement, investment and activity surrounding multi-thruster aircraft, today’s situation harkens back to the early days of what is now the F-35B Lightning II.

It was a world of bold, revolutionary and unproven technology — an exciting time when strong leadership was promoting an idea that many believed was impossible, or at best, impractical.

Such is also the case today, where an influential leader — in this case Uber Technologies — is promoting an entire ecosystem of urban air taxis that promises what seems impossible: aircraft that are many times cheaper, more reliable, safer, quieter, faster and environmentally friendlier than today’s helicopter. Only time will tell if Uber’s or others’ visionary concepts prove successful. But in the decades to come, it has the potential to fundamentally change society as much as did the internal combustion engine and the automobile, the microchip and the personal computer, GPS, or the internet and wireless connectivity.

AHS recognized the potential for electric VTOL aircraft in 2013 and — working with individuals from NASA, AIAA, SAE and other organizations — established and led a series of four annual Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF) Workshops, as well as special sessions at each Annual Forum. The 5th Transformative Workshop will be held Jan. 18–19, 2018 in San Francisco, California, in conjunction with the AHS International Technical Meeting on “Aeromechanics Design for Transformative Vertical Flight.”

AHS has led this initiative because it is at the core of what we do.

“Helicopter” is also no longer a good descriptor of today’s rotorcraft industry. Boeing Vertical Lift and Bell Helicopter produce the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. Bell is exploring modular VTOL concepts for Uber, as well as developing the V-280 Valor and V-247 Vigilant fourth generation tiltrotors. Sikorsky Aircraft is developing the S-97 Raider and (with Boeing) the SB>1 Defiant lift-offset rotor technology demonstrators. Leonardo and Airbus are also developing advanced, high-speed rotorcraft transports for the European Union's Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking — a tiltrotor and compound helicopter, respectively — and are well versed in non-helicopter concepts such as Project Zero, the AW609 civil tiltrotor, Vahana, CityAirbus and others.

Other non-helicopter VTOL developments include Northrop Grumman’s TERN tail sitter, Aurora Flight Sciences X-24A LightningStrike, and Piasecki’s ARES — all for DARPA — as well as Carter’s Slowed Rotor Compound (S/RC) and Karem’s Optimum Speed Tiltrotor, to name just a few.

A US Army leader new to the Future Vertical Lift program recently asked me why we had “helicopter” in our name, since that was so limiting. Indeed, the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) initiative and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program — as well as NATO’s Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) Study — all eschewed the word “helicopter.”

Over the years, AHS has periodically discussed whether the Society should change its name officially, with members suggesting a wide range of alternatives in Vertiflite. The Society’s Board of Directors similarly has repeatedly discussed and debated the appropriateness of our name.

Although that discussion will continue, this past October, the Board approved our new branding — pairing our tagline of “The Vertical Flight Technical Society” with the AHS International logo — and our new mission and vision statements.

Our Mission

Provide opportunity for technical data exchange and dissemination; promote awareness of vertical flight capabilities, challenges and development; and foster interest in vertical flight careers and professional advancement.

Our Vision

An international organization that advocates, promotes and supports global vertical flight technology and professional development.

These refinements underscore that the mission of AHS is broadly applicable to all types of vertical flight — from micro air vehicles to electric VTOL, from helicopters to tiltrotors, and from jet-borne aircraft to whatever the future may hold. As technology continues its evolutionary and revolutionary improvements, AHS will continue to support vertical flight.

Because even more than the “American Helicopter Society,” we are the “Vertical Flight Technical Society.”


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A PDF of this article is also available.

Posted June 20, 2017