(Photo: REUTERS / Jean-Paul Pelissier)
The Eurocopter's X3 high-speed hybrid helicopter demonstrator is seen at the Istres flight testing center, September 27, 2010. The X3 protoype, which combines forward-facing propeller engines astride two short aircraft wings with overhead rotor blades, was unveiled at the European company's factory in southern France following months of secrecy about the project.
Eurocopter unveiled a new-look hybrid helicopter on Monday in a bid to counter U.S. rival Sikorsky's efforts to break the speed barrier by rewriting the rules of rotorcraft design.
The X3 protoype -- which combines forward-facing propeller engines astride two short aircraft wings with overhead rotor blades -- was unveiled at the European company's factory in southern France following months of secrecy about the project.
The half-plane, half-helicopter design aims to overcome chronic obstacles to high-speed helicopter flight by combining the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft with those of a standard helicopter, allowing it to fly at 220 knots or 400 km/hour.
The move by the world's largest civil helicopter maker comes less than two weeks after United Technologies unit Sikorsky claimed an unofficial speed record of 250 knots (460 km/hour) with its own next-generation prototype called X2.
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Today, helicopters typically cruise around 140 knots.
Eurocopter, part of European aerospace group EADS, said its X3, sporting black-and-white striped propellers, had flown for the first time on September 6 at a French government testing site.
Sikorsky's X2 made its maiden flight in 2008.
The technology clash reflects fierce competition between helicopter makers to deliver more speed without sacrificing stability or efficiency.
Under current designs, rotor tips approach supersonic speeds when pushed to fly too fast and this can threaten the stability of the base of the rotor, executives said.
Helicopter makers have devoted years of research to solving the problem, but typically the faster a helicopter flies, the less efficient it is when hovering and vice-versa.
Eurocopter Chief Executive Lutz Bertling said the X3 would be more cost-efficient than its competitors, which also include the existing Bell Boeing tilt-rotor aircraft.
"All big helicopter manufacturers are looking for more distance and more speed," Bertling told reporters.
"It only makes sense to increase speed if in the end what you gain is not over-compensated by increased cost."
If successful, the new machine will be marketed for long-distance search and rescue, inter-city shuttle services or military uses including special forces operations.
Reuters reported Eurocopter's plans to unveil the X3, ending months of industry speculation, on Friday.
The Sikorsky model features two main rotors atop the cabin, which spin in opposite directions. That both neutralizes the spinning force applied to a traditional single-main-rotor helicopter and provides a speed boost.
One thing the European and U.S. machines have in common is that their unusual design eliminates the need for the sideways tail rotor used to stabilize traditional helicopters.
(Editing by Michael Shields)
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