I was surprised to read this report. I seriously believe the V-22 Osprey will be the last military grade tilt-rotor we see. Although developments out of the baseline V-22 and upgrades related to it are likely over the coming years, I just don’t see how the market could support another extremely expensive and incredibly complex tilt-rotor design. The concept has clear limitations, although things like prop-rotor diameter and wing size could be improved with an aircraft more focused on non-maritime missions with increased self-deployability being essential. Still, the V-22 took decades upon decades to develop and the unit cost of a single airframe is still more than a Boeing 737 or Super Hornet, even after multi-year buys have been executed in attempts to tamp down on its high price-tag. The new, although it is not really new, technology on the block seems to be the “pusher prop” helicopter hybrids. Sikorsky is all over this technology with multiple demonstration vehicles under their belt and Eurocopter has made a big splash with their twin prop experimental design based on the Dolphin lineage of airframes (oh the puns!). With all this in mind where does that lead the tiltrotor?
I have always believed that the V-22 offers a niche capability, although it was optimistically procured in non-niche numbers. For certain missions like search and rescue and special operations the aircraft really does make sense, for many other missions it is a complex and expensive luxury and they could be just as well served by airframes a third the cost or even less. One thing is for sure, it seems like the ultimate showdown between highly disparate visions for combat aviation’s rotory wing future is on the horizon in the form of US Army’s Joint Multi-Role/Future Vertical Lift (JMR/FVL) program, the decision of which may change the course of aviation as we know.
In the end Bell seems to be tied to their controversial and finicky, while at the same time monumental, design. One that by its very nature is full of sacrificial compromises. Then again who can blame them though right? Getting the Osprey out to the fleet took Bell, Boeing and the USMC on a trail of tears, a developmental process that was one of the most long, volatile, politically damning, and deadly in history. Will the DoD and Congress really be up for an Osprey 2.0 especially in this economic climate? I guess you never know, the idiots in Washington seem to have very, very short memories when it comes to “lessons learned.” Still, who can really blame Bell for sticking with their dark horse candidate? An aircraft that they hung their hopes and dreams on for so long. Isn’t it human nature to not give up on something you fought so hard for, even if that thing’s time and general relevancy had come and gone? Blind optimism aside, it is not a good sign when your industry partner in the tilt-rotor pipe-dream, Boeing, jumps ship and joins your competition!