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Sikorsky Test Flies New Chopper as Parent Mulls Sale

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. on Friday flew for the first time its next-generation light-attack helicopter, the S-97 Raider.

The test flight took place at the company's developmental flight center in West Palm Beach, Florida. It comes as its parent company, United Technologies Corp., mulls a possible sale of the 90-year-old rotorcraft manufacturer.

The chopper's coaxial design features counter-rotating rotor blades and a push propeller, among other innovations, that will allow it to fly much faster and farther than today's choppers.

The Raider was initially designed to target a potentially $16 billion U.S. Army weapons acquisition program called the Armed Aerial Scout to replace the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, one of the smallest helicopters in the fleet. The service put the acquisition effort on hold due to budget restrictions.

But Sikorsky, which also makes the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and numerous other  aircraft, still plans to sell the coaxial design both domestically and internationally. The company, along with several dozen supplies, have spent tens of millions of dollars designing and developing the technology.

"The aircraft was rock solid," test pilot Bill Fell said of the test flight, according to Sikorsky's Twitter account.

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"We were completely ready to take on this task & we hit it out of the park today," chief engineer Andy Bernhard said in another Tweet.

While Sikorsky is one of the world's largest helicopter-makers with $7.5 billion in annual sales, it has seen its defense and energy markets shrink amid the end of large-scale, U.S.-led ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a drop in global oil prices driven by surging U.S. production, according to an article this month in The Wall Street Journal.

"UTC is exploring strategic alternatives for Sikorsky, which could include a sale or spinoff," spokesman John Moran told the newspaper.

The Raider, rolled out during a glitzy ceremony in October at the company’s hangar in Jupiter, Florida, is one of two built for demonstration purposes. Most of the flight testing will take place in 2015.

Sikorsky in 2010 and 2011 flew an experimental prototype of the design called the X2 that reached speeds of up to 250 knots, or 290 miles per hour. By comparison, the Kiowa Warrior has a top speed of about 120 knots, or 140 miles per hour.

Sikorsky has also teamed with Boeing Co., which helps make the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in proposing the SB>1 Defiant, a larger coaxial design, for the Army’s Joint Multi-Role technology demonstrator program, or JMR.

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