A Fast Helicopter's Slow Revival

David Jenney, a key developer of the Black Hawk helicopter, sees his high-speed ambitions fulfilled

Photo: Patrick O'Connor/Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Ask David Jenney about his career in helicopters and he'll likely tell you that he worked on the Black Hawk for 15 to 20 years. What he'll probably neglect to say is that he conjured the key innovation—a funny-looking tilt to the tail rotor—that made the Black Hawk one of the most successful and ubiquitous helicopters in history.

He may also fail to mention his many rotorcraft patents, or his time as the engineering director in charge of some 400 employees at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., in Stratford, Conn. What he will talk about, with a wistful smile, is 1980, which he spent shuttling between his home in Stratford and an airfield outside West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was flight-testing an experimental aircraft that he hoped would claim the helicopter speed record [see "The Fastest Helicopter on Earth," in this issue].

Each day at sunrise, he'd stroll into the control room at a test facility built on land reclaimed from a sprawling alligator swamp. He'd watch the helicopter push to higher and higher speeds, but a nagging question weighed on his mind: With money left for only about 20 more hours of flight, what would happen next? Neither the military nor NASA had pledged money for further development.

"So we went on the road and tried to sell it," Jenney recalls. At Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army base in Alabama, the helicopter flew on what's known as a nap-of-the-Earth course, blazing over streams and ducking into forest clearings. The vehicle's unusually short rotor blades allowed it to maneuver through tighter spots than most aircraft could, and at significantly faster speeds. "We flew it very low, over rivers, popping over the trees and dipping back down," Jenney says. "The pilots came back raving."

But it wasn't enough. "I gave talks all over the place, but I couldn't pry loose more than a few dollars," he says. In 1981, his project—his long-held dream—was declared a dead end. In the aircraft's final hours of flight, a test pilot took Jenney for a ride for the first time, over Stratford. He admired the streaks of gridded streets below and tried to hide his immense disappointment.

Jenney retired from Sikorsky in 1993. A decade later, however, his beloved high-speed helicopter concept was revisited and soon became a full-blown project. A modernized version is now tackling the speed record once more. "I cheer them on!" he says.

This article originally appeared in print as "Rotorcraft Revival."

A correction to this article was made on 14 September 2010.

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