WASHINGTON — The Sikorsky S-97 Raider hit an important milestone Friday with the successful first flight of its experimental rotorcraft.
The S-97, with two pilots, took off at the company's West Palm Beach, Fla., facility about 7 a.m. time and performed all of its proscribed movements over roughly an hour. The flight test took on the basics — among them three take-offs and landings, and all cardinal movements in all cardinal directions at 10 knots — before more advanced tests over the year.
"This was, we feel, a really spectacular day for Sikorsky and aviation in general," said Mark Miller, Sikorsky's vice president for research and engineering. "It's not every day you have a first flight, and when you add on top of that a very differentiated, new and compelling product like the S-97 Raider, it makes it even more special.
"We're very excited, it was everything we wanted it to be and more, and it's the start of a new generation of helicopters and capabilities that we're really excited about," Miller said.
With the platform, Sikorsky officials said the company was firmly planting its flag for the Army's future vertical lift - light concept and the Army's armed aerial scout requirement. The S-97 was envisioned at one point as a contender replacement for the US Army's OH-58 Kiowa Scout, but the Army changed plans and scuttled the armed aerial scout for budgetary reasons, using the AH-64 Apache on an interim basis.
Company officials touted Raider's usefulness for special operations missions and as a demonstrator for a larger aircraft that would fit the Army's Joint Multi-Role helicopter replacement program for the service's Black Hawk fleet. The Raider is also queued up, should the Army seek a new armed aerial scout again.
Confident in the Raider, Miller said the platform cannot be viewed as a replacement for a helicopter because it can do things helicopters, "cannot even dream of doing in the future," fly faster, higher, hotter and heavier. "This is a fundamentally different capability than what an Apache will give you," he said.
Miller said the company had "really placed a big bet here." Sikorsky is funding 75 percent of the Raider program out of pocket, with the remaining 25 percent coming from 54 principal suppliers.
"This industry has been criticized for not being creative and innovative and we think, and everything we've seen today reaffirms, that this is a game-changing technology," Miller said. "It is fundamentally twice the speed of a helicopter, with some attributes better than a helicopter."
The Raider is based on the X-2 technology that Sikorsky developed in the late 2000s, but double the size at 11,000 pounds, with room for six troops for combat assault missions or extra equipment or ammunition.
Sikorsky pilot Bill Fell said the S-97 was "rock solid," noting how little vibration or sound it produced, and how responsive it was. He and co-pilot Kevin Bredenbeck, who had been chief pilot for the X-2, spoke confidently about how different the S-97 is from a conventional helicopter and how impressed they are with its performance.
Its rigid rotor system provided a "phenomenal amount of control," Fell said. "You are very quickly make inputs in roll and in pitch and there's no lag like a typical articulated rotor system. The aircraft responds immediately to your control input."
The program was originally scheduled to take place 48 months after its clean-sheet design, a much faster pace than the defense industry normally sees, but the schedule slipped by a few months. Miller said the use of additive manufacturing and other new approaches took longer than advertised, but they expect to recoup some of the delay across the one-year controlled test program.
That program will see the pilots take the aircraft to its full speed, 220 knots with stub wings and ordnance, and faster when stripped down, said Andy Bernhard, the program's chief engineer. The tests will expand methodically to include the speed objective and high-G maneuvers.
The test program includes two aircraft, one to demonstrate its full capability and another for customer demonstrations and for exploring the integration of mission systems and weapons.
"We think it is a game-changing capability, and we are going to tee it up to the customers, and over the coming months put them in the seat with us and see what this can do," Miller said. "We're hoping that's going to open some eyes and change some thoughts about how soon they're going to introduce this into the inventory."