Tilting-rotor aircraft may unclog airports

Business travel

March 18, 1991|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder

A decade from now, business travelers may be routinely flying in aircraft that take off as helicopters do and then tilt their rotors or wings forward to fly as airplanes.

The best-known of the new aircraft is the V-22 Osprey, which has a large tilting rotor on the end of each wing. Two military contractors, Boeing Helicopters of Ridley Township, Pa., and Bell Helicopter/Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, are test-flying prototype copies of the Osprey for the Marine Corps.

In addition, a small Japanese-owned company, Ishida Aerospace Research Inc., has set up shop in Fort Worth and says it will have a 14-passenger craft with a tilting wing ready for regular commercial airline or air-taxi service by 1997.

The Osprey, which is still in the development stage, has been fighting for its life. The Pentagon has been trying to kill it because some analysts say it will be too costly to develop for military use. But supporters in Congress are promoting it as an aircraft that not only has great military potential but also could help to relieve congestion at the nation's airports.

The potential advantage of tilt-rotor or tilt-wing planes is evident to any frequent traveler. The popularity of air travel means frequent delays in operations at airports, and it means that getting to and from airports on the ground is a time-consuming chore in many cities.

Tilt-rotor aircraft do not need long runways and thus could fly downtown to downtown between cities in congested areas such as the Northeast Corridor or Southern California. Proponents also see tilt-rotor technology as a way to keep serving smaller cities that don't generate enough traffic for larger planes or have airports capable of accommodating big jets.

In a study just completed for the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Boeing and Bell concluded that by the year 2000, a commercial tilt-rotor craft that "is both technically feasible and economically competitive" could be developed.

The two aircraft companies said it would take a big investment of tax dollars and private money to create "vertiports" -- where Ospreys or other vertical-takeoff planes could operate. The planes may also require special handling by air-traffic controllers.

Still, costs of developing vertiports could be far less than those of expanding existing airports or building new ones to accommodate more jetliners. It can take hundreds of acres to expand a conventional airport, while a vertiport for tilt-rotor craft might require as few as five acres, according to an author of the study.

High-speed trains are a potential competitor to tilt-rotor or tilt-wing aircraft when it comes to alleviating air congestion in urban transportation corridors. The U.S. government is studying high-speed trains, too.

In the Washington-New York corridor, Amtrak's Metroliners have shown that, with top speeds of 125 miles per hour, they compete effectively with cars and airplanes for passengers. Amtrak carries more people between New York and Washington than any single airline. Between many of the cities on the line, Amtrak carries more passengers than all airlines put together.

Advocates of more high-speed trains as an alternative to further congestion of highways and airports note that in France and Japan, many business travelers switched from airplanes or cars when fast, efficient rail service became available.

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