Tiltrotor aircraft have proven themselves a useful asset in the military sphere, and, although costly, boast novel capabilities that make them particularly suited to the rescue role. Femke van Iperen looks whether cost sharing could boost the hybrid aircrafts’ potential future in this type of mission
The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey has been marketed as benefiting from a ‘successful blend of the vertical flight capability of a helicopter, with the speed, range, altitude and endurance of an airplane’, and a ‘survivable and transformational platform in the most challenging environments on the planet.’ The world’s first production tiltrotor aircraft, it has been described as ‘the most in-demand aircraft with the U.S. Marine Corps’ and has seen action in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan*3.
The Osprey also made an appearance for example during the Trident Juncture 2016 NATO exercise, when it was referred to by a Dutch Ministry of Defence magazine as a ‘very special bird’ after it had landed for the first time on the deck of the Dutch Landing Platform Dock (LPD)*4.
A next-generation tiltrotor also aimed at the military is in development. A lighter, cheaper machine than the V-22, the Bell V-280 Valor (which has been marketed as having ‘twice the speed, twice the range of current helicopters’) has been designed for ‘warfighters’ strategic options*5’, and is described as ‘a Black Hawk that can adjust its thrust to fly like a fixed-wing aircraft once it’s airborne’.
The V-280 could also have applications outside of combat missions. Frost & Sullivan aerospace and defence senior industry analyst Mike Blades noted in a report by National Defense Magazine in July 2015 that the aircraft ‘could also be marketed for medevac and search-and-rescue missions*7’.
All in all, the high speed, long range and vertical lift capabilities of tiltrotors make them particularly suited to SAR missions.
A way to go
However, the development of tiltrotors is early and whereas the Bell Boeing V-22 is in production and provided for military usage, the V-280 Valor is still in the testing phase and yet to make its first flight. Another model in development, the AgustaWestland AW609 (which started life as the Bell/Agusta BA609), is believed to be around two years out from certification, AMR was told.
There have been reports of tentative international interest in the V-22 (from for example Israel and India), but the high purchase and ongoing costs remain a barrier. In the previously-mentioned National Defense Magazine report, Blades warned that for the V-280 to be considered for medevac and SAR missions, its ‘operating costs would need to come down considerably’, despite its having been designed with particular attention to ‘manufacturing, assembly, and sustainability,’ thereby ‘greatly reducing the total cost of ownership’. In the same report it was also referred to ‘so-called ownership cost’ of flying the V-22 (overall expenses divided by the number of hours the aircraft flies per year) as more than $83,000 per hour.
the high speed, long range and vertical lift capabilities of tiltrotors make them particularly suited to SAR missions
However, V-22 Joint Program Office programme manager US Marine Corps Col Daniel Robinson has mooted a potential solution to reduce the overall life-cycle cost of tiltrotor aircraft. Nations could benefit from independent ownership of the aircraft, he explained, but share support such as repair, training, and aircraft modification capabilities: “A shared regional logistics support concept could be tailored to individual customer needs and include an allocation of service, with costs based on portion of fleet flying hours,” he said of a concept that he presented at the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow. “Host countries could stand up one or more of each of the support areas including fleet support; supplier repair programmes; integrated logistics; intermediate or depot maintenance; supply chain management; engine management and training,” he said.
Clarifying further that there are many possible forms this concept would take, Robinson added: “As an example, it could include independent country aircraft ownership, but share a common regional support concept. The shared concept could leverage industrial participation in host countries and could use the NATO Sustainment and Procurement Agency (NSPA) for legal framework, authorities and agreements.”
Although Col Robinson told AMR that at this time, nothing has been set in motion as far as the international sharing concept is concerned, there has been interest in it, and ‘discussions are ongoing with NATO and the US Government’.
Opportunities such as this may help pave the way to make tiltrotors more affordable for nations interested in employing them for their SAR needs.
In the meantime, besides its overall military success, there has also been some reported interest in the use of tiltrotors in civilian SAR (and related) missions in particular. In Australia for example, Aeromedical Innovation Australasia (AIA) has been running a campaign, AIA Project Thunderbird, which is described as an ‘initiative to improve clinical outcomes and increase efficiency of aeromedicine for rural Australians through the integration of tiltrotor aircraft’.
AIA chairman Dr Paul Adams told AMR: “The AW609 Tiltrotor is a prodigy aircraft for Australian Aeromedicine. In fact, the whole of Australasia is ‘fertile soil’ for tiltrotor aviation. AIA through Project Thunderbird is seeking early sensible adoption of this technology for the clear benefits it will bring to patient care.”
Referring to the issue of tiltrotors and cost, Adams said: “Capital expense largely looms as the most prohibitive feature of tiltrotor technology to interrupt Project Thunderbird and delay acquisition within Australasia. Cost efficiency will be achieved via approaches that capitalise on the tiltrotor’s capacity for ‘economy of scale’. As such, AIA supports any concept that permits early adoption for the clear benefits it will bring to patient care. AIA also has a vision for key facilities at Wellcamp Airport as a regional hub to support the emerging era of tiltrotor aviation in Australasia.”
In November in 2015, there were also news reports on how the Joint Aviation Command (JAC) of the UAE had selected three AW609s for its SAR missions for future delivery. The decision had been based on the tiltrotor’s ‘unique speed and range characteristics, combined with its ability to hover,’ and an AW609 spokesperson from Italy-based manufacturer Leonardo confirmed with AMR that the company has a number of agreements on order from customers around the world, and firm contracts with the UAE for example, for a SAR variant of the aircraft.
In fact, the Leonardo website, which attributes the SAR potential of its tiltrotor to its ‘pioneering combination of hovering flight, high speed, ability to fly in full icing conditions, and long-range capacity’, promises its tiltrotor to be ‘an unrivalled asset for government or private SAR operations’ amongst others, and assures this in ‘even exceptionally difficult emergency situations’.
Said the Leonardo spokesperson: “The US continues to work in support of the industrialisation, certification, and assembly of the AW609. The company’s site in Philadelphia has been selected as the first final assembly line for the AW609, including deliveries for SAR-configured aircraft, such as in the case of the UAE. Work on all configurations of the AW609, including SAR, VIP, EMS, and offshore transport, continues as the programme moves towards certifications.”
The AW609 is ‘ideal to support long-range surveillance and SAR operations up to 300 nm from shore, aiding in border patrol, maritime rescue and homeland security efforts,’ the spokesperson further explained.
“Those operators requiring emergency medical capabilities will benefit from a pressurised cabin that allows for a broader range of treatment options and the ability to reach patients that were previously inaccessible, and travel faster to specialised and critical care medical centres,” she added.
there has also been interest in the use of tiltrotors in civilian SAR
Meanwhile, it was reported in July 2015 that the first international contract for V-22s involved Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force (JSDF), which would purchase some of the aircraft for its country’s ‘defensive and humanitarian operations’, as they would providing ‘an ideal platform for relief efforts in response to natural disasters’. A JSDF spokesperson confirmed with AMR that the Force ‘are planning to procure 17 V-22 Ospreys in total’, to be delivered at a later stage, and said: “These tiltrotor aircraft are expected to be extremely vital equipment in terms of maintaining Japan’s security and disaster relief operations.”
The Bell spokesperson said: “At this time, our current in-production tiltrotor – the V-22 – is provided for military usage only. However, its platform along with the V-280 is something we see as viable options for military SAR.”△