Volume 02, Issue 10
The DRAGONFLY lives!
A determined team sets the X-50 on its first flight
BY WILLIAM COLE AND DOUG KINNEARD
As the sun rose over the still Arizona desert in December, the countdown was about to begin for the first hover flight of the X-50A Dragonfly Canard Rotor/Wing. The evolving high technology of this advanced experimental vehiclewhich can take off like a helicopter, stop its rotor blade in flight and then fly like a fixed-wing aircraftwas in stark contrast to its primitive, barren desert surroundings.
The small, unmanned craft sat at the end of a 2,500-foot (758-meter) runway at the sprawling U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz., once used by Gen. George Patton in the early 1940s to test World War II weaponry and train forces for desert fighting. Members of the Boeing flight-test crew had disconnected the vehicle from its cable restraints and electrical supply.
Inside a control station trailersituated at a safe distance at the entrance to the runway and protected by four-inch-thick steel barriersrenowned veteran experimental test pilot Stetson Cowan was a study in concentration. The Mesa, Ariz.-based lead test pilot, who would fly the vehicle remotely, was more used to putting AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters through their punishing paces. Now, he focused on a television image of the craft from his "cockpit," a control fixture equipped with instruments and stick. He was presiding over controls once used at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to flight-test the X-36, a tailless fighter agility research aircraft developed by Phantom Works.
As the minutes ticked by, team members wearing headsets monitored the vehicle's systems on a bank of computer screens and electronic data readouts. The suspense mounted as they ran their checklists. The X-50, with its rotor turning, was in flight-ready condition as the team waited for the winds to abate. At the right moment, flight-test director Mike Pope gave the signal the team had been waiting for for more than a yearthe go-ahead for liftoff.
The small 1,400-pound (630-kilogram) vehicle is powered by the same engine that drives the Tomahawk cruise missile. As it rose vertically from the ground the control station trailer fell completely silent. The X-50A, its blade rotating at 1,170 revolutions per minute (about four times the speed of the much larger Apache), then hovered at 12 feet (4.6 meters) and descended vertically to the runwayall within 80 seconds. And when it was over, the trailer erupted with cheers and applause.
"Rarely have so many appreciated so much work done by so few," said an ecstatic program manager Clark Mitchell, referring to roughly 15 people who worked the Phantom Works CRW program from 1998 to its ramp-up for first conversion flightthe ultimate goal of the Dragonfly.
It was typical of Mitchell to think of his team first. With a quiet, forthright leadership style, he had managed to build a strong sense of trust and camaraderie among his group through the highs and lows of the program. Interested in every aspect of the operation, Mitchell could often be seen walking in the blazing sun to the X-50 or patiently reviewing technical details with the engineers and mechanics.
"A development program of this nature brings high risk and a high degree of uncertainty," he said. "But we have a proven team and great confidence that when we encounter unexpected challenges, the team works effectively together to resolve them and move on. I always knew that we had the right people looking at these issues." Included on the Boeing-led team were representatives of the program's customers: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, and the U.S. Navy.
Propulsion engineer Zainab Dalal had just joined the program after having graduated from the University of Illinois, but she keenly felt that elevated team spirit. "This is really exciting for me," she said during the build-up to the flight. "I've worked on abstract things before. But this is a real project. It's a lot of fun working with these guys."
Flight A, as the first hover flight became officially known, also provided a moment of particular satisfaction for Gary Gallagher, a colorful former U.S. Navy Seal, Vietnam War hero and director of Canard Rotor/Wing Systems. Unexpected technical problems or gusts of winds had led to several delays. And on each occasion, Gallagher had to give the signal to proceed or postpone.
After the hover flight, Gallagher said: "We have a great team, and we did it through sheer determination. Today we saw Boeing make history."
Ten more rotary test flights will take place before two crucial "conversion" flights. During rotary-wing flight, forward speed increases and the canard wing and tail pick up the aerodynamic load of the aircraft. Then, the exhaust is gradually diverted through a nozzle at the back of the aircraft, propelling it even faster forward and allowing the rotor to stop and lock into place crosswise for fixed-wing flight.
The CRW reaction drive rotor system eliminates the need for the traditional mechanical transmission, drive train and anti-torque rotor or device. "That makes the CRW much lighter, simpler and more affordable to operate and support than traditional rotorcraft and short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft," said Gallagher. "Its greater speed, range and flight-mode flexibility will make it suitable for a wider range of missions."
The CRW can be scaled for both manned and unmanned applications. As an unmanned air vehicle, the CRW would perform reconnaissance, communications and data-relay missions; in a manned configuration it would be ideal for armed escort, command and control, logistics re-supply and medical evacuation. Gallagher said: "The CRW is truly a transformational aircraft for the 21st century."
The Canard Rotor/Wing "is truly a transformational aircraft for the 21st century." Gary Gallagher, director of Canard Rotor/Wing Systems
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