The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey remains the most successful tiltrotor military aircraft, offering both vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. It also combines the functionality of a conventional helicopter with the long-range, high-speed cruise performance of a turboprop aircraft.
While the Osprey’s accident history has generated some controversy since entering service with the United States Marines Corps and U.S. Air Force, the V-22 has been successfully used in transportation and medevac operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Kuwait. Additionally, the U.S. Navy has begun to use the updated CMV-22B for carrier onboard delivery duties.
The Osprey wasn’t the first such tiltrotor.
In fact, the concept dated back to the early twentieth century when French-Swiss brothers Henri and Armand Dufaux began work on their “convertible” aeroplane. However, their vision was ahead of the technology of the era, and it wasn’t until the Second World War that German aviation pioneer George Lehberger began to realize the potential of a tiltrotor with his Focke-Achelis Fa 269. His prototype was never flown, but the concept lived on and in 1951, a joint U.S. Air Force/U.S. Army initiative developed the Bell XV-3, which became the world’s first successful Vertical Short Takeoff and Landing (VSTOL) tilt-rotor aircraft. It combined the takeoff and hovering capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.
Now, sixty years later there are reports that China is also developing a tiltrotor for use with the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) aircraft carriers. Engineers from three mainland-based universities specializing in naval build-up, shipbuilding, and aviation, have published their work in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering, a scientific journal published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The engineers have devised landing based on “pigeon-inspired” optimization, which aims to reduce accidents in tiltrotor aircraft during a carrier landing. In their paper, the engineers said they had come up with a new model for planning the path of a tiltrotor aircraft approaching a carrier, based on the way a pigeon makes a return flight.
“A new path planning model is developed in this study to deal with the path planning problem for the tiltrotor approaching the [aircraft] carrier,” the paper noted. “The established model is essentially different from the previous path planning models.”
A tiltrotor could be crucial for the PLAN, as it could provide better airlift capability for troops and material from a carrier deck than traditional helicopters, especially in an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait, East or South China Seas. It could greatly enhance the strike capabilities of the PLAN’s Liaoning and Shandong carriers.
“I expect aircraft companies and the PLA’s naval and aviation institutes will join together to deliver a prototype of a carrier-based VTOL helicopter being built within three years,” warned Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
China may not be starting from scratch in its efforts, and the South China Morning Post reported that a scale model of the quad tiltrotor known as “Blue Whale,” that was shown as the Chinese helicopter show in Tianjin in 2013, was similar in design to the V-44 Bell, which is based on the V-22.
Beijing has been hesitant to move forward with the tiltrotors due to their instability problems, especially when operating from carriers. However, as China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea, it has a need for large transport aircraft. For now, it is moving forward with a more traditional helicopter design.
“China needs large ship-borne transport aircraft to support the navy’s Type 075s and other big naval ships,” Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, told the South China Morning Sun. “China’s future ship-borne helicopter will be inspired by the design of the American Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant compound helicopter.”
Unlike the V-22 and future V-44, the SB-1 is a helicopter with coaxial rotors and will replace the U.S. Army’s UH-60 Blackhawk. However, a tiltrotor could still be in development for the PLAN, and it likely could look a lot like the Osprey.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.