Flying on Mars and developing V/STOL and eVTOL programs continue apace
By Erasmo Piñero Jr.|December 2021
The V/STOL Aircraft Systems Technical Committee is working to advance research on vertical or short takeoff and landing aircraft.
NASA’s autonomous Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft to fly on another planet in April after landing on Mars in February with the Perseverance rover as part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars 2020 Mission. Until then, only spacecraft powered by rockets have flown on other planets and celestial bodies. This time, the flying was with electrical motors and aerodynamic lift, or rotors, opening a new, but long-sought, era of planetary exploration.
The number of F-35B Lightning II aircraft in operation expanded as the Italian Navy began flying its fleet of F-35Bs from the aircraft carrier Cavour. An F-35B landed aboard the carrier in July; eventually, 18 to 20 F-35Bs will operate from the Italian flagship. The Italian Navy joined the British and U.S. navies as oceangoing operators of the F-35B.
In May, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B detachment operated from the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time. The Marines were to spend up to seven months on the Queen Elizabeth, demonstrating the aircraft’s operational commonality with F-35Bs of other NATO nations. The squadron mix consisted of 10 Marine Corps F-35Bs and eight F-35Bs from the Royal Air Force.
The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey began operating with both the Japanese Self-Defense Force (the first non-U.S. operator) and the U.S. Navy’s carrier onboard delivery aircraft fleet. CMV-22Bs operate regularly from aircraft carriers performing resupply missions on open-ocean missions. The CVM-22B replaced the Grumman C-2A Greyhound. One highly visible change on the CVM-22B airframe is the inclusion of higher-capacity sponson fuel tanks to extend the baseline range of the aircraft.
The U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift program made progress. The Bell V-280 Valor tilt-rotor demonstrator completed a three-year, 200-plus-hours flight test program in April at the Bell Flight Research Center in Texas. The Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant compound helicopter and S-97 Raider proof-of-concept test aircraft completed demonstrations to outgoing U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy in February. Operating from Sikorsky’s test facilities in Florida, additional demonstrations included an SB-1 sling load test in July and other high-speed flight milestones. Lessons learned from these demonstrators are being applied to Raider X and Defiant X, which are Sikorsky offerings for the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift competition.
Throughout this year, investors funded the expanding electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft industry. At least 16 eVTOL aircraft have entered preliminary or detailed design phases, with at least nine projects aimed at carrying passengers and cargo. Two eVTOL aircraft made strides on their flight test programs. Joby Aviation’s S4 Generation 2.0 multitilt propeller design performed a series of full transitions to forward flight early this year, culminating in a long-duration flight (77 minutes) in late July. The S4 has six tilting electric-powered propellers and is designed to cruise at an airspeed of 322 kph. Beta Technologies Alia-250’s first eVTOL prototype performed an up-and-away piloted test flight in January, and a second prototype is under construction at the Beta Tech facilities in Vermont. In April, UPS announced that it will buy up to 10 Alia-250c aircraft with an option to buy 150 more to expand its delivery network. Both the S4 and the Alia-250 are scheduled to enter operations in 2024.
Contributor: Paul Park