Next Generation Helicopters – The “X-Plane” Battle Heats Up


Picture Credit: Breaking Defense and Karem Aircraft TR36XP

As the chairman of the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics at New York University, Alexander Klemin testified on April 26, 1938 at a Congressional committee hearing on “Development of the Autogiro and Rotary-Winged Aircraft,” that “[t]he conquest of the air in its broadest sense will only come when we can do in the air substantially everything that a bird can do in the air.”

This week, at the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) drone conference,  Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon “Dog” Davis are pushing for a large sea-based, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL-X) under the MUX (Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aerial System Expeditionary) Program focused on unmanned aerial vehicles.  Davis expects to these VTOL  in use before the Army-led Future Vertical Lift program which Aviation Week describes as being accelerated, though with “placeholders.” AW reported, “the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will lead the introduction of next-generation rotorcraft under the multi-service Future Vertical Lift (FVL) procurement, seeking Sikorsky H-60 and Bell Helicopter H-1 replacements.” But there is a lot at stake as the various helicopter families are numerous in this $100B program due for delivery by 2030: “FVL is meant to develop replacements for the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters. The precursor for FVL is the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) helicopter program, which will provide technology demonstrations planned for 2017

The VTOLs bidders under consideration saw Aurora Flight Sciences win Phase II in March 2016:

DARPA’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program has selected Aurora Flight Sciences for its $89.4 million Phase 2 contract. Aurora will now move to build a prototype of its unmanned, hybrid-propulsion “LightningStrike” aircraft. The aircraft beat competition from Boeing’s tilting ducted-fan Phantom Swift, Lockheed-Sikorsky’s proposed Rotor Blown Wing tailsitter and Karem Aircraft’s TR36XP “optimum speed tiltrotor”. The completion of the prototype is expected to be September 2018.


VTOL-X is comparable to the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper which is also sea-launched and deployed worldwide. The Air Force fact sheet characterizes this clearly as the attack weapon it is:

“The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset.

Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons — it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.”


The head of the DOD Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), William Roper, explained that DOD is placing an emphasis on mobility devices. “The Army and the Marine Corps have a greater chance of benefiting from most of the commercial technology we see in development,” Roper said. Why? Because companies are constantly competing to come up with better and more powerful technology that an individual person can easily carry or wear, he said: “It’s ground forces that will have the greatest chance to leverage that.” SCO is focused on new contracting relationships in systems delivering  Autonomy, Command and Control, Cyber, Sensors, and Weapon Technologies. Similarly, the U.S. Army is planning equipping its divisions with soldier-borne sensors, leader-follower cargo-hauling technology and tiny, hand-held unmanned aircraft, according to Maj. Gen. Robert M. “Bo” Dyess, deputy director of the Army Capability Integration Center. The centerpiece of ACIC’s warfighting strategy is defined by Force 2025 and Beyond:

Force 2025 and Beyond is the Army’s strategy to ensure the future joint force can win in a complex world. The Army must meet the demands of the future strategic environment in alignment with its strategic vision and priorities. As such, the Army must make the BCT and enablers leaner while retaining capability, prevent overmatch through 2025, and set the conditions for fundamental change by 2030-40. Through fiscal years (FY) 2015 – 2017, the Army will develop and refine what the Army will become by 2025. To determine the optimal design for the Army of the future, the Force 2025 and Beyond effort consists of activities along three primary lines of effort: force employment; science and technology and human performance optimization; and force design.

The Office of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (ATL) has a connection to the Defense Innovation Marketplace. The Defense Innovation Marketplace is the centralized source for Department of Defense (DoD) science and technology (S&T) planning, acquisition resources, funding and financial information. NOW, contrast just the business portion this site with IAI’s earlier profile of the complete innovation program at the Environmental Protection Agency…telling.


Picture Credit: Boeing Phantom Swift X-Plane Concept (2013)

The Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine explains: “Dozens of designers have tried to combine the agility of a helicopter with the speed of an airplane by marrying one or more methods of propulsion—rotors, propellers, turbojets, or ducted fans—with one of four ways to convert a craft from vertical to horizontal flight: tilting the whole aircraft, tilting the thrust, deflecting the thrust downward for vertical flight and rearward for horizontal flight, or using two thrust mechanisms on the same vehicle (such as rotors for vertical flight and prop fans or jet exhaust for horizontal flight).”

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