Helicopters have been important players in combat missions for much of the past century with their ability to get in and out of tight landing and takeoff situations, and armed versions of the helicopter have played an important role in warfare since the AH-1 was developed for the Vietnam War to confront heavy ground fire.
But as far as aircraft go, helicopters aren’t particularly swift. The modern AH-64 Apache helicopter’s top flight speed is 153 knots (173 mph) if it’s not weighed down with missiles and other armaments.
To address the slow-poke qualities of combat helicopters, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, a unit of United Technologies Corp. (NYSE:UTX), has been working for decades on tri-motor technology to squeeze out a few extra knots of air speed by adding a second rotor on top and rotating the rear blades 90 degrees so that they point backward rather than to the side, in effect pushing the aircraft.
The Connecticut-based company, maker of the Black Hawk helicopter used to take out Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden in 2011, is currently bidding to sell the results of this effort, its S-97 Raider, to the U.S. Army. Sikorsky's website states that the aircraft can hold six people and has a range of 372 miles.
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Meanwhile, Sikorsky unveiled this month a civilian version of the Raider that it intends to sell in the near future to anyone with presumably deep pockets and a need or desire to get somewhere faster than a conventional execu-chopper could take them.
In 2010 speed tests, a prototype of the S-97, dubbed the X2, broke speed records, hitting a cruising speed of 250 knots (288 mph), topping 260 knots, or 300 mph, in a controlled dive. The X2 broke a record that had stood at 216 knots (249 mph) since 1986, held by the British-made Westland Lynx ZB-500.
A shift to offering something new and sexy in executive- and government-use helicopters is probably good timing for Sirkorsky. Net sales for the company fell 9 percent last year, according to United Technologies’ annual earnings report filed Jan. 22. No pricing information for the helicopter is available yet, but it’s safe to say that for most people reading this, it doesn’t really matter.
United Technologies may soon be putting Sikorsky up for sale, according to a report late last month from DefenseNews.com.
The company won’t comment on the rumor, but industry sources have said the defense sector is ripe for increased mergers and acquisitions in light of reductions in defense spending and the scaling down of U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.