22 December 2005

Small Planes For the Army

Fixed wing aircraft deliver more fuel efficiency, longer range, and greater cargo capacity than helicopters. They are also less prone to crash and have a greater capacity to glide to an emergency landing in the event of a mechanical failure than helicopters. Obviously, fixed wing aircraft can't land vertically, but a small fixed wing aircraft can handle a pretty small, primative field airstrip.

The Marine's V-22 Osprey exists largely to take advantage of the benefits of fixed wing aircraft while still being able to land like a helicopter when needed. But, lots of the time, the immense technological risk, complexity and cost that goes into the vertical take off and landing capability of the V-22 isn't necessary. A smaller than a C-130 and comparable to a heavy lift helicopter sized fixed wing transport aircraft would be very useful to the Army.

In fact, the Army actually has aircraft that fit that description. The C-23 Sherpa is one of the few classes of aircraft that the Army has been allowed to keep in the Air Force-Army split, largely because the Air Force doesn't want them. For comparison purposes, the C-130, the main short range Air Force transport plane, can carry 92 troops for 2356 miles at 374 miles per hour. The Army's C-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopter is designed to carry 33 troops 250 miles at 160 miles per hour. The C-23 Sherpa is designed to carry 30 troops for 770 miles at 218 miles per hour. Thus, the Sherpa has about three times the range and goes about a third faster than a helicopter that can carry a comparable load. The Sherpa also costs less to buy and maintain than either a comparable capacity helicopter or a C-130.

I'm not the only one who thinks it would be wise to let the Army develop a successor to the Sherpa, sooner rather than later, unburdened by Air Force indifference. Such a plane would be far cheaper than the V-22, yet fill many roles now inappropriately filled by helicopters simply because that is all that the Army has that it can rely upon.

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