Is the future heliski helicopter being designed now?
Since the early 70s, the reliable twin-engine Bell 212 has been the steadfast workhorse of CMH Heli-Skiing. The smaller but powerful and fast Bell 407 is used for private heli-skiing and small group heli-skiing, and the lighter and efficient Bell 206 “Long Ranger” is used as a support helicopter alongside the 212 for our Signature Heliskiing programs.
With the same helicopter designs powering skiers for over 40 years, a common question our guests ask our skilled team of pilots from Alpine Helicopters, is “Are there new helicopter designs in the works that would be good for heliskiing?”
The pilots all seem to give a similar answer - so far, there isn’t a good replacement, especially for the Bell 212. The combination of the reliability, lifting capacity, and suitability for mountain flying make the 212 an ideal machine for most of CMH Heli-skiing’s regular operations.
Then, the other day I came across a BBC article about new designs for a helicopter that included the Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR). The LCTR looks more like an airplane than a helicopter, but the oversized propellers rotate, allowing the aircraft to take off and land like a helicopter, but then rotate to fly like a propeller plane once airborne. The LCTR would fly much faster than a traditional helicopter, hitting 300 knots cruising speed.
Another design by Sikorsky called the X2 has a more traditional helicopter-like shape, but can hit speeds of 250 knots and is a more suitable size for heliskiing than the LCTR. The X2 uses two main rotors that spin in opposite directions, and a tail rotor that points backwards. The design allows much faster speeds by eliminating a helicopter specific flight phenomenon called “retreating blade stall” where the rotor moving forward is traveling faster than the rotor on the other side of the aircraft that is traveling backwards.
Retreating blade stall creates a situation where the two rotors do not provide the same lift. This is not a problem at slow speeds, as the rotors are designed to shift with each rotation, tilting at a slightly different angle when the blade is moving forward than it is when moving backward. At higher speeds, beyond about 200 knots, these changes of rotor angle are not adequate to compensate for the difference in lift by either rotor.
The X2 allows for not only greater speeds, but also a quieter ride and better fuel efficiency. However, before all you footage-fiends out there, who love nothing more than a 15,000+ metre day of heli-skiing, go jump on your Stairmasters to get ready for even bigger, epic-er days with faster helicopters, there’s a catch.
I tracked down Matt Conant, the legendary Galena pilot and rippin’ skier, and asked him what he thought of these new designs. Here’s what he had to say:
“Perhaps your blog should start, ‘No school like the old school.’ There are very few aircraft new or old that can effectively replace the Bell 212. Most new helicopters are geared toward the corporate or air ambulance market. As a heliski pilot I have no use for a aircraft that will cruise at 250 knots. I spent most of my flying day climbing at 60 knots. Although a more efficient, equally safe and more environmentally friendly way of ‘getting to the top’ would be welcome, For now we're happily stuck with the ‘old school.’
Photos of Matt's Bell 212 on the left, and the Bell 206 support helicopter on the right, at CMH Galena during an epic storm cycle by Topher Donahue.