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Last flight of 6-story Roton forced to abort

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press Sunday, May 11, 2003.

Valley Press Staff Writer

MOJAVE - It was to be "The Last Flight of the Roton," but the flight was not nearly as long as organizers hoped.

The last vestige of an attempt to create a low-cost space-launch system, the Roton ATV was headed from its birthplace at the Mojave Airport for display at Classic Rotors, a helicopter museum located at the Ramona Airport.

But like many flight experiments before it, this one ended in disappointment Saturday morning.

The effort to carry the six-story, cone-shaped vehicle, created by Rotary Rocket, beneath an Army helicopter ran into unexpected difficulties once airborne and the two never left the airfield. Moreover, the CH-47 Chinook helicopter suffered damage to the underside of its body when it deposited the Roton on the airport tarmac. "It's back to the drawing board," said Mark DiCiero, operations director for Classic Rotors. "We just have to figure out a way to carry it in a different way. "That's just something to tackle."

A small crowd gathered at first light Saturday morning to witness the unusual move, as the massive vehicle was rolled out from its hangar and towed by a pickup truck to a spot on the flightline where the helicopter would be able to pick it up. Once it was secured, the twin rotors of the heavy-lift Chinook spun to life, and the helicopter was soon hovering above the Roton. Witnesses on the ground could see a member of the flight crew reach through an opening in the belly of the CH-47 and use a long hook to snag the rigging atop the vehicle. After a few tense moments, the helicopter slowly rose, pulling the Roton off the ground. Dangling the Roton beneath it, the Chinook headed north across the airfield. As it did, the massive rocket began swaying increasingly side-to-side.

While those planning the move had anticipated that the Roton would rotate in flight, no one had expected the side-to-side movement. It proved to be too severe for the helicopter to handle, and the crew returned to the flightline to set down the Roton. All together, the pair was airborne about 20 minutes.

"I wouldn't have expected it," said Dwayne McQuade, helicopter pilot in command. "With its shape, I expected it to fly true." In planning for the flight, organizers were concerned with the vehicle's rotation while hanging by its nose. To counter this, a small parachute was attached to one leg, with a weight on the opposite side to provide additional balance. "From that standpoint, it was a success," DiCiero said.

Another unforeseen problem came once the Roton vehicle was safely back on the ground. As the helicopter was disengaging its hook from the vehicle, it bobbled briefly and the rotor head atop the Roton pierced the sheet metal underside of the Chinook. The damage was not structural and the helicopter is still safe to fly, although "it might be a bit drafty back there," McQuade said.

The Army CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter from Fort Hood, Texas, was enlisted to carry the Roton nearly 200 miles from Mojave to its new home. "This will be a first," said Maj. Andrew D. Doehring, one of the Army Reserve pilots transporting the Roton, as preparations were made Friday for the flight. The size and shape of the vehicle is the unusual part of this mission, he said. The weight - about 10,000 pounds - is actually a little lighter than their normal "nonstandard external loads." "The awkward size makes for the 'wow' portion of it," Doehring said.

Among those who turned out at dawn Saturday morning were several former members of the Rotary Rocket team, many of whom are now the force behind another Mojave-based rocket venture, XCOR Aerospace. "I'm really pleased it's going to a museum and will be cared for," said Aleta Jackson, one of Rotary Rocket's first employees and now with XCOR Aerospace. "It's kind of sad it's leaving Mojave, but we're pleased it's got a good home . . . and will be seen and appreciated."

The Roton atmospheric test vehicle was a proof-of-concept vehicle for an envisioned space-launch system in which the cone-shaped craft would return from orbit and land like a helicopter. To test the landing and hover capabilities of the design, the ATV was built with rotor blades atop the cone, making it "the world's tallest helicopter," said Terry Robinson, program director for Classic Rotors. The blades were removed for the move, and are already at the museum. A nonprofit, all-volunteer effort, Classic Rotors is one of only four museums in the world devoted to helicopters, he said, and the only one with aircraft in flying condition. "We dream about growing our museum," Robinson said, constantly on the lookout for new specimen for the collection.

Robinson learned of the Roton through a web site and thought "we've got to have that Rotary Rocket!" He tried in vain to reach the now-defunct company, headquartered in Redwood City. The trail seemed cold until he read that XCOR Aerospace had bought much of Rotary Rocket's intellectual property. He was able to contact the company's founders through XCOR and secure donation of the vehicle. By that time, several museums had expressed interest in the vehicle, but none could figure out how to transport it. "Everybody's just given up on it," Robinson said. The vehicle's enormous size - more than 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide at the base - makes transport by road or rail impossible.

Classic Rotors' solution was to enlist the aid of the Army to carry the Roton beneath a heavy-lift helicopter. "They took one look at the picture and thought, 'Whoa! that would be cool!'" Robinson said. The Army is able to provide such service through its Innovative Readiness Training program. This allows the service to provide assistance to nonprofit organizations while performing its own training missions. In this instance, the team from Fort Hood already was scheduled for a mission to Seattle, and simply added the Mojave stop to its trip. "This is totally something that supports our mission," Doehring said. "It's kind of a goodwill project," he said. "It shows the military is available for the community."

Once set up outside the Classic Rotors hangar, the Rotary Rocket will be the tallest structure in Ramona, Robinson said. "This will put us on the map," he said. Eventually, the museum hopes to set up the display so that visitors are able to enter the cone and see the cockpit set up as if ready for a flight. "We want to give it the respect it deserves," Robinson said.

Rotary Rocket raised eyebrows when it set up shop at the Mojave Airport in 1998 with the introduction of the Roton Rocket - conceptually a reusable launch vehicle that could carry small payloads into orbit, return to Earth and be prepared for another launch the next day. The company ran into difficulty raising enough capital to get the unconventional project off the ground and liquidated much of its assets in a January 2001 auction. The cone-shaped Roton would use rotary blades to slow its decent from orbit and to land, much like a helicopter.

The Roton atmospheric test vehicle was the first step in developing the Roton Rocket. It was constructed to test the ship's flying ability in the atmosphere and was incapable of space flight.

The ATV made three flights at Mojave Airport in 1999, where hover tests showed the company's concept of a helicopter-style of landing of a cone-shaped spacecraft would work.


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