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Eurocopter demos high-speed helicopter hybrid in Texas

One idea of what the future of helicopters may look like was demonstrated for a North Texas audience Wednesday as European manufacturer Eurocopter showed off its new high-speed X³ hybrid helicopter.

It was the first stop on a month-long U.S. tour for the unique short-winged aircraft that, Eurocopter officials say, retains all the versatile, workhorse capabilities of a helicopter but with the greater speed and range of an aircraft.

"The X³ is the future of the vertical [lift] aviation industry," Lutz Bertling, chief executive of Eurocopter, told helicopter operators and government officials gathered at American Eurocopter Corp.'s facility.

The aircraft, which combines the vertical lift capabilities of a helicopter with about a 50 percent improvement in speed, is the first step toward development of a commercial or military helicopter by the end of the decade, Bertling said.

In flight testing in France, the X³ reached a cruise speed of 230 knots (more than 260 mph), compared with 150-160 knots of most conventional helicopters. The aircraft is easier to fly and control than a helicopter, said Dominique Fournier, a Eurocopter flight test engineer.

Designing an aircraft that has the attributes of a helicopter but can attain the speed of an airplane has long been the Holy Grail of the helicopter industry. Bell Helicopter achieved the speed goal with its tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, but the complex tilt-rotor concept has performance and cost drawbacks that to date have limited its adoption beyond the U.S. Marines and Air Force. Bell long ago gave up on the idea of a civil tilt-rotor, largely because of costs, and sold its share of the BA609 program to Italy's AgustaWestland.

The real potential of the X³ concept, Bertling said, is not just an increase in speed but gains in productivity and efficiency. Eurocopter's goal is to develop a helicopter with a 50 percent gain in speed and range with only a 25 percent increase in operating costs and an even smaller increase in acquisition costs.

"The important thing is you look for a high productivity aircraft," one that will allow helicopter operators such as those flying to offshore oil rigs to carry more personnel and cargo farther, faster and at lower unit costs, Bertling said.

The X³ demonstrator, based on a standard Eurocopter aircraft, has a conventional helicopter rotor for vertical takeoff and landing and is capable of emergency autorotation landings should it lose all engine power.

The aircraft's twin turbine engines drive not only the rotor but a pair of propellers, mounted at the end of each wing. In forward flight the propellers provide the thrust and the wing the lift that enables the X³ speed and range improvement over a conventional helicopter.

There is no tail rotor, a complex, energy consuming helicopter component, because the propellers also provide directional control.

It will take years more work to refine the technology and design and develop an X³ helicopter. But by the end of the decade, an aircraft will be available that could be tailored for civil and military uses, Bertling predicted. "We know which type of product we'll do, but we're not going to say what it will be and tell our competition," he said, adding that several models would be available within 20 years.

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. is pursuing similar aims of boosting helicopter speed and range with its X2 concept using different technology.

Eurocopter, which was formed by combining French, German and Spanish helicopter companies in the early 1990s, is a subsidiary of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. American Eurocopter, which is based in Grand Prairie, is the company's U.S. sales arm and is producing military and civil helicopters at a plant in Columbus, Miss. It employs a total of nearly 1,000 in Grand Prairie and Mississippi.

Among dignitaries at the event was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "The potential for this aircraft to help the state of Texas in homeland security and emergency services is so obvious," he said.