Airbus’ new Racer is half-plane, half-copter — and it’s lightning-fast

Business execs and politicians gathered at a helicopter base in France yesterday for the first public unveiling of Airbus’ new Racer aircraft.

At first glance, Racer looks like a regular helicopter. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice it has both wings and two forward-facing rotors. This means it can take-off vertically like a helicopter, and fly fast like a plane — real fast.

Racer can reach speeds in excess of 400 km/h. That eclipses civilian helicopters, which cruise at around 200 km/h. It’s even faster than military choppers like the Black Hawk (295 km/h) or Chinook (302 km/h).      

Racer’s so-called ‘compound formula’ means it can takeoff like a helicopter and fly like a plane. Credit: Airbus 

The helicopter could speed up response times for search and rescue teams and medical personnel. It could even be used as an inter-city shuttle.

The rotorcraft builds upon the half-plane, half-copter design of the Airbus X3. Back in 2013, this experimental aircraft broke the speed record for a helicopter by reaching 472 km/h. 

Racer aims to take this so-called compound formula closer to commercialisation. 

Sorry, but speed isn’t everything

“Speed at any price, without taking into account the economic and environmental impact, is of no interest to anyone,” said Julien Guitton, who headed up the Racer’s development.

Racer was launched under the European Clean Sky 2 programme which encourages the development of lower-emission air transport. Under the initiative Racer had to demonstrate a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions compared with a conventional aircraft of the same weight. 

Racer ended up meeting these targets, Airbus said following the first test flights in April

By providing 40% of the total lift, Racer’s wing takes the load off the rotor, reducing dynamic loads and vibrations. Airbus also says it will be more comfortable than a conventional helicopter.

Yesterday’s flight demonstration took place at Airbus Helicopters’ base at Marignane, southern France. Some 150 industry executives, politicians and representatives from the European Union were in attendance, Reuters reports.

For now, Racer remains a demonstrator aircraft — albeit one that cost €200mn to build. However, if Airbus attracts enough interest from potential buyers, who knows, it might just go on sale one day. 

Talking of super-fast choppers, US-based Bell Helicopter is currently developing a tilt-rotor aircraft for the United States Army that has a top speed of 556 km/h. Called the Bell V-280 Valor, its rotors can face down during vertical take-off and then pivot to face forward to fly almost like a plane. Tilt-rotors are, however, not technically helicopters so Airbus’ record still stands. 

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