Sikorsky’s exotic S-97 coaxial rotor and pusher-prop scout and light attack helicopter took to the air for the first time Friday. Although the marketability of the S-97, a descendant of the X-2 and X-49 demonstrators, to the US Army is now in doubt, Sikorsky is betting hugely on the concept for its future.
The fact of the matter is that the Army was once very keen on replacing its OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and augmenting its AH-64D/E Apache fleet with something game-changing. Like the stealthy RAH-66 Comanche before it, the S-97 was passed over before it really had a chance to succeed due to budgetary decisions. The Army is now retiring all its armed scout helicopters with the Apache and unmanned aircraft taking over the role and there is no money in the near future to reinstate such a discrete capability.
Still, the Raider, an industry-funded program with 75% coming from Sikorsky coffers and the rest coming from the project’s subcontractors, aims at proving the technology on a near-operational level. This will allow the Raider, which can pack six soldiers in its hold and stub wings for missiles and rockets, to be marketed overseas as well as to Special Operations Command here at home.
Although foreign and smaller domestic sales of the Raider would be a big success for Sikorsky, the real aim is to prove the pusher-coaxial rotor configuration so that larger configurations can compete and win against Bell’s tilt-rotor V-280 “Valor” for the massive Future Vertical Lift and the Joint Multi-Role helicopter replacement program.
This wide-ranging initiative looks to invest in a single technology to replace Apache, Black Hawk, and Chinook helicopters. Sikorsky looks to scale up the Raider’s configuration to satisfy this requirement, and says the design is less complex and less expensive than Bell’s tilt-rotor technology. Strangely enough, Boeing, a long-time partner with Bell on the V-22 Osprey, has joined with Sikorsky for the FTV/JMR requirement.
The Raider will reach cruise speeds up to around 240 knots and is said to be agile like a fixed-wing aircraft more than a helicopter, with higher G limitations than a traditional helicopter of similar size. With its increased speed comes increased range, doubling that of similar sized ‘traditional’ helicopters, and the aircraft’s cargo hold can be filled with a large auxiliary fuel tank, which will increase its already long endurance and range even further.
During the short test flight, the S-97 did a few touch-and-goes and moved in nearly all directions at a relatively low-speed. The pilots reported that the aircraft was incredibly responsive and that its rigid compound coaxial rotor system allowed for much more responsive movements than standard helicopters with articulated rotors.
Over the coming months, the S-97 will expand its flight envelope, and the company looks to demonstrate the hybrid chopper’s unique capabilities to prospective buyers in 2016. As of now, there is no official word of Sikorsky’s X-2 technology being migrated to the civilian market, but if successful on military aircraft, it certainly will end up there.
The idea of obtaining near-turboprop speeds while being able to land like a helicopter has always been very attractive. Tilt-rotor technology has been viewed as complex and expensive, and it has a large footprint. These issues, along with the Osprey’s spotty track record during testing, has seen its move from tactical to practical a slow one, with Augusta-Westland slowly marching on with their AW609.
Sikorsky’s more helicopter-like Raider and larger iterations of its technology in the future, could crack open commercial demand for such capabilities once and for all. That is, if it proves successful in satisfying its performance and cost requirements.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.