Tip driven rotors II

January 26, 2013 by Tim McAdams

Placing a small jet engine (such as a pulsejet, turbojet and ramjet) on a helicopter’s main rotor blade tips for propulsion never developed into a major commercial success. Despite the advantages of no heavy transmission or anti-torque rotor, several major problems could not be solved. One was the high centrifugal loads acting on the engines. However, from a design standpoint, driving the rotor system from the blade tips was so attractive that during the 1940s engineers came up with another concept called the pressure-jet rotor. 

The pressure-jet rotor operates by forcing compressed air out aft facing nozzles at the blade tips. An engine driven air compressor located in the fuselage pumps air through a rotating seal and into hollow rotor blades. Initially, this solved the noise issue that was associated with engines at the blade tips. However, compressed air alone did not provide enough thrust for flight, so fuel was added and then ignited at the blade tips. This added more thrust, but resulted in higher noise levels. Several prototypes were built as compound aircraft. This design uses the noisy rotor for take-off and landing, and then a propeller system with a small wing for forward flight. In an attempt to solve the noise issue without adding complexity, the French built a small helicopter with a large compressor that was successful without burning fuel at the rotor tips. It was quieter and worked well enough that the French Army ordered about 200 of them. However, using just compressed air was not powerful enough for a larger design. 

The final attempt at a tip driven design directed exhaust gasses from a turbine engine through the rotor blades. Hughes Helicopters built a working prototype during the 1960s; however, pumping 800 plus degrees (F) air through a seal in the rotor was problematic. Eventually, the tip driven concept was abandoned in favor of the engine driven main and tail rotor design that is used on the vast majority of helicopters flying today.

One Response to “Tip driven rotors II”

  1. NeilC. Says:

    Tim, you are mostly correct in your writings. Be aware that there is a ‘warm-cycle” exhaust from turbofans that have reduced temperatures and new compounds for those problematic rotating gas bearing seals. They never tried any more than 2 bladed rotorhead. The Keller pressure-jet is a rotorhead design that the late Merrill Keller has a patent on that has not been tried. He was passionate about his design and felt like it was the future of helicopter aviation. I hope that one day his dream will be realized as a major advancement in helicopter safety.

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