Industry Titans Vying for Early Lead in Cargo Aircraft Markets

Article excerpt

Global aerospace suppliers have begun sketching new transport aircraft designs [aimed to fulfill expected future needs for advanced, medium-lift platforms. Companies are pitching their concepts to the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Army in an attempt to prove that these aircraft would, in about 20 years or so, be suitable to replace today's C- 130 Hercules, which is the Pentagon's workhorse for in-theater transport operations.

The Hercules has been a popular airplane since it entered service in the late 1950s. Its most advanced version is the C-130J. But, looking 15 to 20 years into the future, military planners believe that it may need to be replaced, because it may not meet the requirements of the future force. Specifically, it cannot take off or land vertically and cannot operate in short, unprepared runways. The ability to do so, according to experts, increasingly will become a key requirement for 21st century tactical transports.

The Army, for example, is seeking a new transport helicopter that would replace Vietnam-era Chinooks. But the service also may be in the market for a cargo plane that would travel farther and carry more payload than a helicopter. A desire for more airlift capacity recently was expressed by the commander of the Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. William P. Tagney. He praised the addition of the CV-22, a modified Marine Corps V-22 tilt-rotor, to the Special Operations Command fleet. But he suggested that, in the future, the special operations forces would need a bigger plane. "The CV-22 is a narrow platform, boxwise," Tagney told an industry conference in Washington, D.C. He expects that "insights from CV-22 will lead us to a variant with a bigger box for more soldiers."

And the Marine Corps is considering expanding its fleet of vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft fleet by supplementing the V-22 Ospreys with a four-engine variant that could carry up to 100 troops.

Tilt-rotor aircraft can take off, hover and land like a traditional helicopter and, with its rotors in the forward position, fly with the speed and range of a large turbo-prop transport.

Rescue Hostages

At the Pentagon, meanwhile, some officials are eyeing the possibility of acquiring a large, hovering tilt-rotor that could be used to rescue American citizens in hostage situations, for example.

About a year ago, representatives from the office of the defense secretary approached the V-22 prime contractor, Bell Helicopter Textron, based in Fort Worth, Texas, and requested that the company "take a look at a large, hovering tilt-rotor that would use V-22 components," said Dick Spivy, program manager at Bell. "The issue was: how can we rescue Americans in danger at a foreign embassy?" he said in an interview. The V-22 is designed to transport 24 combat troops. But, according to Spivy, the Pentagon might be interested in a plane that could carry 100 or more people.

Bell Helicopter currently is working on a four-engine VTOL plane that would be a big as a G 130 Hercules. The company believes that, if funding is available, the Defense Department will want to buy such an airplane. Named the quad tilt-rotor, the system is in the early phases of design. And it may be a decade or two before the Pentagon has the dollars to purchase it.

The quad tilt-rotor is being designed with 90 seats, Spivy said. When used for cargo, it would move between 10 and 20 tons of equipment and fly at speeds of more than 300 miles an hour over distances from 1,000 to 2,000 miles. It would be able to land vertically in confined areas, such as the rooftop of an embassy. It also could operate off amphibious ships and conventional aircraft carriers.

"There is no military requirement written for it, he said. "But we want to adapt to emerging requirements for heavy lift." More than 50 percent of the components-such as engine, hydraulics and cockpit-would be common with the V-22. …