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Sikorsky's X2 Technology Doubles Chopper Speed
Photograph: Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft
Photograph: Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft

The typical helicopter today chugs along at a respectable 150 miles per hour. With its aptly named X2 Technology, chopper maker Sikorsky hopes to have new helicopters flying nearly twice as fast. Its target: a cruising speed of 250 knots — about 290 mph, nearly 40 mph faster than a helicopter has ever flown before. A turbo boost would be a big advantage for time-critical missions such as medical evacuations and military operations, says program manager Jim Kagdis, allowing crews to get to a site quickly while having the ability "to hover, maneuver, and hoist people aboard."

Sikorsky is currently testing a demonstrator aircraft. Where a conventional helicopter's single rotor generates torque that needs to be balanced out with a tail rotor, the X2 prototype uses two main rotors that spin in opposite directions. With that change, "we're able to get rid of a traditional tail rotor and put a high-speed prop on it," says Kagdis. The propeller, which works much like those found on traditional airplanes, pushes the helicopter from behind. And unlike single-rotor copters, which tip nose-down to accelerate, this one can stay level while speeding up.

Sikorsky is gradually ramping up the test-flight speeds in pursuit of the 250-knot target while working toward three other key goals: low vibration, low pilot workload (meaning many processes are automated, making it easier to fly), and low noise. "Our objective is to hit these four key indicators" by the end of the year, Kagdis says. The only slow thing about the project will be getting to production. Because of the numerous certifications required, Sikorsky estimates it will take up to 10 years before we see these high-speed choppers overhead.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.