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Futuristic Craft, Part Plane, Part Copter, Could Help Alleviate Crunch at Airports

August 12, 1988|ERIC LICHTBLAU | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On his weekly business trips between New York City and Washington, stockbroker R. Hutchinson, spends up to an hour and a half and $22 on cabs each way just to get to the airport to catch his shuttle.

That's time, money and inconvenience that the suburban New Yorker says he can ill afford.

But Hutchinson and other frequent business commuters may have another option if a futuristic flying machine--under development for decades but only now being pushed for commercial use by federal aviation officials--gets off the ground in the mid-1990s.

Part Plane, Part Copter

Part plane and part helicopter, it could fly with the speed, range and fuel efficiency of a fixed-wing aircraft but, through the use of tilting rotors, could take off and land vertically like a helicopter in a crowded city.

It is called the tiltrotor, and proponents from Washington to Los Angeles see it as a way to relieve airport crunch.

Already under full-scale development by the military, the craft gained a boost for civilian use in mid-June from the federal government, when T. Alan McArtor, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, called it "clearly . . . the most exciting promise on our civil aviation horizon" and committed $3 million next year to study its public transportation potential. To stay ahead of European competitors, he also accelerated the timetable for tests and set up a special office within the FAA to coordinate the effort.

Today, the FAA is expected to announce formal agreements with the New York/New Jersey Port Authority and the Defense Department for joint research programs that would lead toward certification of the plane.

'Really Revolutionary'

"We're talking here about a really revolutionary aviation technology," says Dr. Richard Y. Pei, an aerospace engineer and administrator at the RAND Corp. in Washington, who compares the tiltrotor's significance to the development of jet propulsion in the early 1960s.

Still, skeptics predict that the project's commercial prospects will be doomed by the tiltrotor's high operating costs, the poor record of commercial helicopter ventures and the difficulty of creating a new system of downtown and suburban "vertiports" to handle takeoffs and landings.

"It's going to be a very, very hard sell," said Paul Turk, an aviation management consultant in Washington. "The center-city magnet for business travelers is not as great as it once was, and the economics of the tiltrotor just make the whole thing unfeasible."

A study conducted by Turk's aviation consulting firm, Avmark Inc., estimated that the tiltrotor's operating costs per seat would be almost four times higher than those for commuter jets. "That would pretty well wipe out any presumed time-savings advantage," Turk said.

Backers Cite U.S. Study

But tiltrotor supporters point to a joint study by the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Department that was completed earlier this year, which said that the tiltrotor could win a large civilian market of $3 billion to $4 billion in yearly sales. It projected that ticket prices would only have to be 30% to 50% higher than current commuter flights', making the service attractive to many business travelers "if the tiltrotor can offer convenience and a time-savings."

Most research on tiltrotors has been with prototypes that would carry 30 to 40 passengers and make flights of 350 miles or less on such commuter runs as Los Angeles-San Diego, Washington-New York and Chicago-St. Louis.

"Of all the aircraft research and development programs that are under way, the tiltrotor presents one of the brightest possibilities for widespread civil application," Rep. Tom Lewis (R-Fla.) said at a joint House hearing on the subject last year.

"Anyone who has encountered traffic jams on the way to an airport to catch a flight, only to be delayed for takeoff due to airport congestion . . . would agree with that assessment," Lewis said.

FAA's McArtor, appealing to the sensibilities of the congressmen who might someday be called upon to approve substantial funding for the tiltrotor's development, emphasized the time-savings this way: A tiltrotor vertiport built at Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, would put half the members of Congress within 90 minutes' flying time of their home districts.

Los Angeles Takes Note

While airport officials in the New York-New Jersey region have done the only comprehensive metropolitan study on tiltrotors, the aircraft's potential has caught some attention in the gridlocked Los Angeles area as well.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments is now preparing an application to the FAA for a $120,000-research grant for a tiltrotor study there.

Mirroring a national trend, a recent SCAG study showed that Southern California's already congested airport system is likely to "run out of absolute capacity" by the end of the century, said Tim Merwin, the association's aviation program manager.

"The tiltrotor is definitely a part of our future--it may be the only answer," Merwin said.

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