Uber-aviation historian Walter Boyne happened to release a book called "How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare
" about the same time that Osama bin Laden was exposed rather harshly to the reality of the book's title.
That the US special forces involved in the 1 May raid of bin Laden's compound left behind unimpeachable evidence of a secret stealth helicopter programme -- which has been reported here as a bolt-on modification kit for Sikorsky MH-60Ks -- seemed like sensational gravy, prompting a geyser of commercial spin-offs like a 1:144-scale model show above.
The retail version of the 'bin Laden bump' no doubt didn't hurt Boyne's book sales either, but that doesn't mean he's happy about all of the attention. If anything, the 83-year-old founder of Air & Space magazine and author of dozens of aviation books said in an interview on 25 March that the revelation of the stealth helicopter programme just gave everyone the wrong idea about the state of the helicopter industry.
"I think it gave [the public] a sense of pride and self-sufficiency," Boyne said. "For me to think that the United States of America with 4.9% of [gross domestic product] devoted to defence can at best field four modified stealth helicopters when engaged in three wars is shameful."
In Boyne's view, the knowledge that US special operations still rely on bolt-on stealth kits reveals the US vertical lift aircraft industry is still mired in the aerodynamic and signature limitations of the Vietnam-era. The fact that one helicopter crashed during the operation allegedly due to power settling -- ironically, revealing the programme's existence -- should come as no surprise, Boyne said.
The Black Hawk "is still a 30-year old design," Boyne said. "When you put on aftermarket stealth it degrades your performance."
Boyne cites the the experirence of the Lockheed Cheyenne high-speed helicopter. It was canceled nearly 40 years ago after suffering delays and cost overruns. But Boyne thinks the army should have stuck with it like the air force tolerated similar setbacks with each new generation of fighters and bombers. Boyne once received a letter from Willis Hawkins, Lockheed's designer of the C-130 and the Cheyenne, who complained that if the army had only persisted it could have fielded 2,900 Cheyennes within the same time period that Boeing designed and built the significantly slower AH-64 Apache.
Instead, the US military's rotorcraft industry has fallen into a three-decade-long rut of non-innovation, Boyne said. New helicopter programmes are launched, such as the RAH-66 Comanche, only to be canceled after requirements change and the engineering falters, with residual funds plowed back into upgrades for existing platforms.
The army is trying to break out of that paradigm now, setting an "aimpoint" in 2030 to deliver an all-new vertical lift aircraft unconstrained by the 168kt speed limit imposed by the aerodynamic law of retreating blade stall on conventional helicopters.
Boyne, however, is worried the programme is likely to follow the experience of the Comanche rather than the Apache, which actually fielded a new combat helicopter for the last time in army aviation history.