Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

American Chopper

One of the Army's current high-profile projects is the Joint Heavy Lift (JHL) rotorcraft, which will carry 26 tons of cargo (i.e., the Future Combat System) into the middle of the battlefield. Current designs include a Bell-Boeing quad-tiltrotor (based on the V-22 Osprey,) two helicopters based on Sikorsky's X2 technology (with counter-rotating rotors,) a "variable speed, hingeless tiltrotor" from Frontier Aircraft, and a conventional dual-rotor chopper resembling the CH-47 Chinook on steroids.

What the Army is really doing is foolishly reinventing the wheel. The CH-62 heavy-lift helicopter was Boeing's answer to an Army requirement for a helicopter that could lift 22 tons. The project stalled in 1974 due to drivetrain problems, and Congress withdrew funding. Still, the project made technical headway that led to fly-by-wire helicopters, composite structures on aircraft and the precursors to the V-22's turboshaft engines. The unfinished prototype was airlifted to the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

The XCH-62 prototype languished at the museum for years, falling victim to neglect. As the 50th anniversary of Fort Rucker neared, the museum was cleaned up for the Army brass who were marking the occasion. Unfortunately, museum director Steve Maxham ordered the XCH-62 to be scrapped in a truly philistine fashion. An important piece of aviation history met an untimely end in October 2005.

It would be unfair to say for certain that a resurrected CH-62 would meet the Army's JHL requirements. One of JHL's goals is to build a faster chopper, as helicopters haven't gotten significantly faster over the past forty years. Still, the CH-62 was a far-sighted program that deserved to be built in its day, and deserved to be preserved as a historical artifact. Wise engineers involved with JHL would be wise to give the CH-62 another look and determine whether it is a good starting point for the new heavy-lift chopper.