Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's on monster helicopters. Enjoy!

Airplanes you can understand: they're basically just big birds. Wings? Check. Tail? Right-o. Body? Absolutely. But helicopters ... well, helicopters are seriously strange beasts. It's a wonder why anyone took Mr. Sikorsky (and his predecessors) seriously, and an even bigger wonder how they got anyone remotely sane enough to sit inside one of those early prototypes and hit the START button.

Beyond the fact that helicopters came out of left field (the far, far left field) the craziness continues when you begin to think about how easy it is for something to seriously -- and traumatically -- go wrong with one. An airplane, after all, can glide if its engines fail. An airship (dirigible, zeppelin, etc) can usually descend if it loses too much lift. But a whirlybird without power has one - and only one -- option: crash.

But, thankfully, Mr. Sikorsky didn't give up and today we are lucky to have the results of his work: incredibly flexible, wonderfully useful, spectacularly nimble aircraft. But although many breeds of helicopter have become quite safe, there is still a lingering kind of madness regarding whirlybirds: the drive to see how insanely huge we can make them.

Unlike airplanes, the size-wars with helicopters began after World War II. While, like a lot of aircraft technology, helicopters were jump-started into being useful and moderately reliable machines, the early 40s aircraft were lucky enough to get into the air -- let alone get into the air without killing the pilot.

But this clumsy infancy didn't last very long. The 1950s saw an explosion of radical -- and in some cases terrifying -- helicopter designs in both the United States as well as the Soviet Union. One of the grander designs is one that is pretty familiar as it's been used by both the US military as well as civilian companies in need of some heavy lifting. Looking something like a twin-rotored banana, the earliest Boeing Chinook popped up in the late 50s but because of its heavy lifting skills, stayed around for a very long time. Modern, updated versions are still used all over the world. The Chinook, in fact, is kind of the poster-child for big helicopters. Got something heavy that needs to go from impossible point A to impossible point B? More than likely the machine connecting the dots is a Chinook. While numbers are rarely impressive, the size of the numbers the modern Chinook can lift are still ones to give pause: 28,000 pounds of cargo, which is about 14 tons of whatever needs to be moved from pretty much any point A to pretty much any point B.

Another Goliath is the stylishly named (well, for the Soviets) MI-6. Again created in the 50s, the MI-6 was a true monster. While not as oddly stylish as the Chinook, this powerhouse could lift 26,000 pounds of cargo (12 tons) -- which was a lot of pretty much whatever you can think of. Almost all of these types of machines were very popular with the Soviets, spawning a whole range of monster helicopters, some of whose descendants are still in use today.

While the Chinook certainly appears odd, and the MI-6 is damned huge, other big helicopters begin to look like the designers were not trying for size as much as just plain weirdness. Take a gander at the also-colorfully-named Soviet MI-10. Although its guts were from the old, reliable MI-6, this misshapen cousin sported four monster legs, giving it the impression of a bug-phobics nightmare dragonfly. Whenever I look at the MI-10 I always wonder if the pilot ever forgot what he was flying and stepped out -- falling dozens of feet to the tarmac.

Not that the US hadn't had its own share of big, and damned ugly, helicopters. Perhaps because it was created by Hughes, the same Hughes of crazy-in-Las-Vegas and the Spruce Goose, the XH-17 Sky Crane was terrifyingly huge: the rotors alone were 135 feet across (the largest in the world). You can barely imagine the pants-wetting that might have gone on when the Sky Crane was fired up and those insane rotors began to swing around and around and around. Luckily, for the sanity of the people watching and the safety of the pilot crazy enough to fly it, the Sky Crane wasn't much of a hit and has since crashed down into aeronautical footnotes.

There are other huge whirlybirds, of course: the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe, the AĆ©rospatiale Super Frelon, the Agusta A.101, and so on and so forth, but as we're running out of space, we have to jump to the biggest helicopter to date, and one of the very strangest.

Aside from the bug-geared machines like the Sky Crane and the MI-10, most big helicopters usually look like smaller ones simply writ large. Rotors? Check. Tail rotor for stability? Right-o. Fuselage? Absolutely. But the -- yet again -- poetically named Mil V-12 (from those lyrical Russians) looks nothing like anything before or since.

Sure it has rotors -- it wouldn't be a helicopter without them -- but with the V-12 they are placed on the side of its massive fuselage. Weird, right? But this is BIG weirdness as the V-12 is commonly considered to be the largest helicopter in the world. How big? Think of it this way: see that 747 over there -- that monstrous fixed wing machine? Well, the V-12 is as wide as one of those 747s. But unlike a 747, the V-12 can take off straight up, and haul close to 55,000 pounds at the same time -- or 88,000 if it takes off a bit less like a helicopter and more like a plane.

Sure, helicopters are strange beasts but what makes them even stranger is when they become nightmarish giants. Flying overhead, they go from head-scratching marvel to staggering wonders. Who'd be crazy enough to build them, let alone get behind the controls and fly them?

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