Progress being made in rotorcraft infrastructure

 - March 28, 2007, 6:48 AM

Progress is being made toward the goal of rotorcraft taking their place in the national transportation infrastructure, according to presenters at January’s American Helicopter Society (AHS) infrastructure convention in Carmel, Calif. The most significant announcement was a congressional requirement in the 2004 federal appropriations bill for the FAA to prepare a document–a technology road map–to define how the U.S. helicopter industry can achieve five key goals.

The administration was given 180 days, until June 9, to complete this road map in association with NASA. AHS executive director Rhett Flater said the fact that the FAA, rather than NASA, was given the responsibility illustrates some congressional concern over the space agency’s commitment to rotary-wing research and development. (NASA infamously reduced to zero its funding for helicopter research in 2001.) “The five are what I would call ‘stretch’ goals in that, given the timescale available to us, they may not all be achievable, but they will certainly point us in the direction we wish to go,” Flater said.

Section 7.1.1 of the FAA reauthorization is calling for rotary-wing R&D initiatives over the next 10 years that can achieve:

•    An 80-percent reduction in noise levels on takeoff, approach and landing.

•    A tenfold reduction in vibration levels.

•    A 30-percent reduction in empty weight. This might include the development of lighter and stronger materials for airframe components.

•    A predicted accident rate equivalent to that of fixed-wing aircraft.

•    The capability for zero-ceiling, zero-visibility operations.

Noted Flater, “The first three of those goals are areas within NASA’s expertise, and that of the 200-odd U.S. Army scientists and engineers currently co-located with NASA at several of their facilities across the U.S. Safety is a joint concern of both agencies, perhaps with an FAA lead, and item five– well, you could argue that the capability for this already exists, and that all we need to do is continue to create the infrastructure using GPS and satellite technology.

“However, what is important here is that we integrate rotorcraft into the work being done by the joint planning and development office (JPO) to create a next-generation air-transportation system national plan. The JPO incorporates the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Transportation and Homeland Security, as well as the FAA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its goal is no less lofty than to transform the current aviation system over the next 25 years.

“It is clearly vital that, if we don’t want to still be flying ILS approaches [in the future], we make sure that rotorcraft are included in this plan. If properly funded, this plan would really help the U.S. rotorcraft industry, both civil and military. The Holy Grail is the point where rotorcraft can really contribute to the national transportation infrastructure. The term now being used by federal government agencies is ‘runway-independent aircraft,’ as they have correctly identified runways as primary choke points to the goal of enlarging the capacity of the airspace system. The FAA has already started work on this and, in fact, we spent a good part of our time in Carmel discussing with the administration how best to go about preparing the study.”

This technology road map will become a public document and, in the future, Congress may well appropriate funds to NASA, the FAA or other agencies to carry out some of these R&D requirements. Originally, the bill was part of a larger one proposed by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who last July offered it in an amendment to H.R.2734, the House’s FAA reauthorization bill. This included similar rotorcraft R&D initiatives but, significantly, it also called for the establishment of a rotorcraft research facility in his home state.

It also contained an authorization of appropriations of $40 million in FY 2004, another $40 million in FY 2005 and 2006, $50 million in FY 2007 and $70 million in FY 2008. That part did not get through the authorization process but Flater concluded from those numbers that “you can see how serious Weldon is about making U.S. industry competitive in world markets again.”