Airbus Helicopters’ Rapid and Cost-Efficient Rotorcraft—better known by its acronym Racer—is progressing steadily and on course to start its flight campaign this year, according to Brice Makinadjian, the company’s chief engineer for the program. “We are moving towards a first flight for the demonstrator in the second half of 2022, more towards the end of the year,” Makinadjian told AIN during a media briefing in Marignane, France, ahead of Heli-Expo 2022.
When announced in 2017, Airbus said Racer would begin flights in 2020. However, the European OEM was forced to revise the timeline of the first flight several times, pointing to a variety of reasons such as program management complexity and the slowdown of several production lines in the supply chain as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first assembly phase of the compound high-speed rotorcraft took place at Airbus Helicopters' site in Donauwörth, Germany, and the demonstrator was transferred to the Marignane site seven months ago.
“We have now received almost 100 percent of all parts from our partners in the Clean Sky 2 contract,” Makinadjian said. The European Union’s Clean Sky 2 public-private aerospace research initiative awarded €200 million ($227 million) for the Racer development project, which involves some 40 companies and academic institutions from 13 countries across Europe. Several of the partners brought expertise from outside of aeronautics.
Airbus's Racer program builds on the findings of its predecessor, the X3 high-speed compound rotorcraft demonstrator that performed its first flight in 2010. “The aim of the X3 was to validate the technology. 'Are we able to fly at this speed [220 knots in cruise] without technological problems?' The answer is yes. Now we want to demonstrate the missions, the [aircraft’s] efficiency, and speed advantage,” Makinadjian noted while acknowledging that only a fraction of the X3 components have been retained for the Racer. “Almost everything is new.” This includes a fresh design.
The seven- to eight-tonne Racer is designed to cruise nearly twice as fast as a conventional helicopter. With speeds up to 220 knots and a target range of 400 nm, the project aircraft aims at achieving the best tradeoff between speed, cost-efficiency, and mission performance.
Racer is powered by a pair of 2,500-shp Safran Aneto-1X engines that provide 25 percent more power than similar-size engines. Up to a 15 percent reduction in fuel burn can be achieved when one of the two engines is placed in standby mode during cruise flight—a configuration Safran calls “eco mode.” Flight testing of Safran’s hybrid-electric stop and start system is planned for next year.
Overall, the flight-test campaign will be used to validate Racer against the Clean Sky 2 environmental and acoustic footprint goals of 20 percent lower CO2 and NOx emissions, as well as 20 percent less noise than current helicopters. Final assembly is progressing rapidly since the arrival of the demonstrator in Marignane in the third quarter, and the high-speed compound rotorcraft is “taking shape,” Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even recently said on Twitter.
“We are very passionate and motivated,” confirmed Makinadjian, revealing that the demonstrator already rests on its own landing gear and installation of the fuel system and flight controls—the aircraft employs conventional, as opposed to fly-by-wire flight controls—have been finalized. Its asymmetric tail boom, designed for a performance gain up to 10 percent in hover, and distinctive “box wing” have been attached to the fuselage—a hybrid of metal and composites.
The fixed double wing is one of the most striking elements of the demonstrator and stands also as a “major” component of the Racer formula, Makinadjian remarked. Its new wings—which will have two lateral pusher propellers mounted—actively enhance the helicopter’s performance by providing additional vertical lift and the ability to fly further and faster than conventional helicopters. At cruise speed, roughly half the helicopter’s lift comes from its fixed wing.
Meanwhile, the critical three-meter-long shafts, which turn at up to 3,000 rpm, were sent to Poland in February for final balancing and fatigue testing and are scheduled to return to Marignane this month. Airbus is still waiting for the gearboxes from Avio Aero in Italy and expects to receive the main gearbox in June and the lateral gearboxes later in the year.
The main gearbox will be tested at Airbus’s facilities in Marignane and the lateral gearboxes at Avia Aero. While awaiting the lateral gearboxes, the Racer team will place their gearbox mockup in the demonstrator “to check that everything is fitting [properly],” Makinadjian said. In parallel, the team will finalize the documentation and activities for the permits to fly.
Airbus plans to operate several demonstration flights to validate different missions it has identified for the compound high-speed rotorcraft. While they have not yet been locked in, Makinadjian said possibilities span para-public missions, short-haul corporate use for efficient hops between cities, and time-critical search and rescue missions (SAR).
Thanks to its higher speed, Racer will be able to cover a much larger area in the so-called “golden hour” time frame during SAR missions versus conventional helicopters. “We would like to demonstrate this with a hoist being fitted to the Racer and simulate a quick patient transfer,” Makinadjian added.
The Racer demonstrator features a cabin of similar size as the H145 light twin, which is able to seat six to eight passengers in executive configuration. “But the concept is scalable,” according to Makinadjian. He believes the formula is even fully applicable to military missions, but that falls outside the scope of the Clean Sky 2 initiative, which focuses purely on innovations in the civil sector.