This Soviet Twin-Rotor Helicopter Design Was A High-Speed Rival To The Mi-24 Hind
The futuristic-looking Kamov V-50 was planned to fly a range of missions at 250 miles per hour.
The V-50 helicopter, on which the Soviet design bureau Kamov began work in the late 1960s, was a radical concept for a multirole combat helicopter that was ambitiously pitched to both the army and the navy. With tandem twin rotors, gunship-style cockpits, and modular weapons options, the V-50 was designed to swoop into battle at speeds far in excess of most of its rotorcraft contemporaries.
Helicopters had only really emerged as trusted weapons of war during the 1950s, before coming of age during the U.S. conflict in Southeast Asia and, in parallel, in French hands in that country’s campaigns in North Africa. For much of the Cold War, rotorcraft development, with a few exceptions, tended to be fairly conservative, with designers sticking to proven concepts and creating enduring families of interrelated types, like the U.S. military’s iconic Bell H-1 Huey and Sikorsky H-53 series.
In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, this rotary-wing conservatism expressed itself in a long line of fairly conventional, albeit increasingly larger and more capable, transport helicopters for the ground forces from the Mil design bureau. Meanwhile, Kamov developed a family of more compact types tailored for the Soviet Navy, with coaxial contra-rotating rotors that helped reduce their “footprint” on the flight decks of smaller warships.
Kamov, however, also proposed a very different and far more radical helicopter design, the V-50, as a “universal helicopter” that would be able to serve both the ground forces and the navy and that was expected to reach a speed of almost 250 miles per hour. In contrast, the now-iconic Mi-8 Hip, which was then entering service as a standard assault transport for the Soviet Army, had a maximum speed of 155 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, in the United States, manufacturers were also looking at ways of increasing the speed of military rotorcraft, leading to the remarkable Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne, a gunship that adopted a compound design, with conventional main and tail rotors backed up by a pusher propeller in the tail. Despite problems that eventually led to the cancelation of the production contract in 1969, the Cheyenne demonstrated a speed of 247 miles per hour in level flight, putting it very much in the same performance bracket as the planned V-50.
The Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1, a new compound coaxial helicopter design first flown in early 2019, is planned to achieve 290 miles per hour but hasn’t hit that speed yet.
The idea of a common airframe for both land-based and maritime applications was novel, too, since, up until this point, most helicopters had been developed to fulfill the requirements of either the army or the navy, since the operating conditions, mission spectrum, avionics, and weaponry for these services were so different. With the V-50 design, however, Kamov sought to overcome this challenge, with an airframe that could be adapted for roles as diverse as anti-submarine warfare (ASW), reconnaissance, or anti-tank operations. In another example of forward-thinking, equipment would be provided in modular packages for each specific mission.
Significantly, Kamov also broke with its in-house tradition of coaxial contra-rotating rotors, the technology for which had been developed by Nikolay Kamov himself soon after the end of World War II. Instead, the V-50 design utilized a pair of tandem rotors, arranged like those of the American CH-47 Chinook, among other contemporary designs, aligned with a very narrow fuselage. The tandem twin rotors were almost certainly the brainchild of Igor Erlikh, who led the design team and who, in the late 1950s, had designed the Yakovlev Yak-24 Horse, the first mass-produced Soviet helicopter to adopt a tandem-rotor arrangement. Meanwhile, the V-50’s narrow fuselage was intended to ensure the V-50 would reach its planned high operating speeds.
The chosen powerplant was a pair of the new Isotov TV3-117 turboshafts, which were also selected for the Mi-24 Hind assault helicopter that was first flown in prototype form in September 1969. These engines were rated at 1,900 shaft horsepower at takeoff and were later also used to re-engine the Mi-8/17.
Kamov’s helicopter design was to be flown by two pilots seated in tandem, below separate glazed canopies. In a land-based assault role, the V-50’s narrow fuselage could accommodate eight paratroops, while offensive armament would be carried on external hardpoints under long stub wings attached to the forward fuselage. The anti-armor missiles proposed for the land-based version would have been replaced with anti-ship missiles, or other naval weapons, on the maritime V-50. While the ground-based version had provision for a gun turret under the nose, this was switched for a search radar in the naval equivalent.
There is no record of what type of missiles the production V-50 might have carried, but available official models of the design suggest it would have been fitted, initially at least, with four 9M17M Falanga-M manually controlled anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), known to NATO as the AT-2 Swatter. These first-generation air-launched ATGMs were replaced in the early 1970s by the 9M17P Falanga-P, which introduced a much more effective semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) guidance technique.
The V-50 project continued until a fairly advanced stage, including wind-tunnel tests, but the Soviet Army ultimately decided not to order it, since they considered the Mi-24 would fulfill their requirements for an assault-transport helicopter. As it turned out, the Hind would actually require a complete overhaul before it was a genuinely satisfactory aircraft and, in the process, it would lose its original “greenhouse” cockpit glazing for the stepped-tandem seating arrangement that was chosen for the V-50 and almost every other assault helicopter/gunship.
With the Soviet Army unconvinced by the V-50, the idea of a modular helicopter to serve the requirements of both ground and naval forces evaporated. The Soviet Navy also decided to follow a more conservative path for its new ship-based ASW and search and rescue rotorcraft. It opted for the Ka-27 Helix, which was externally very similar to its Ka-25 Hormone predecessor, albeit with the new TV3-117 engines that had been pitched for the V-50.
The potential of the V-50 had, however, alerted the Soviet Navy’s attention to the idea of a maritime assault helicopter, a class of rotorcraft to which it had not previously devoted much attention. It would be several more years, however, until the navy actually put these plans into action and developed the Ka-29 assault helicopter on the basis of the Ka-27. Overall, this was far less ambitious than the V-50, essentially being a minimum-change version of the Helix with a crew cabin and armament. Series production of the Ka-29 was only launched in 1984.
Ultimately, in the absence of a production V-50 “universal helicopter,” the Mi-24 and Ka-27 were destined to continue as the mainstays of the Soviet Union’s army aviation and ship-based helicopter fleets, respectively, until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
In its final configuration, with stepped tandem cockpits, heavy armament carried on stub wings, and a cabin with accommodation for a squad of soldiers, the Hind ultimately shared some broad design similarities with the V-50 concept, and its success as a troop-transporting gunship means that it remains in production today.
As it was, Kamov would have to wait a while longer to finally achieve success with a combat helicopter for the ground forces. This was the Ka-52 Hokum, for which the company stuck with its tried and tested coaxial contra-rotating rotors, combined with an unorthodox side-by-side crew seating arrangement. The Ka-52’s path to frontline service was protracted, however, and although the helicopter first flew in 1982, the program was interrupted by the demise of the Soviet Union, and it didn’t begin to be operationally fielded by the Russian Air Force until 2011.
Today, the development of high-speed, multirole military helicopters is also very much on the agenda in the United States and elsewhere, with major programs including Future Vertical Lift that promises to provide the U.S. military with a family of future rotorcraft to replace its entire fleet of legacy types. In Europe, Russia, and likely in China, too, armed forces are also starting to look at future helicopter designs that stress speed and versatility, and potentially harness exotic propulsion concepts.
With an eye once again on high-speed rotary-wing flight, Russia’s Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, also known by its Russian acronym TsAGI, has recently been looking at different concepts for a compound helicopter, apparently intended for rescue and light utility roles in the Arctic region, which you can read more about here.
While today’s Ka-52 may be a suitable successor to the stillborn V-50 in the gunship role, we will never know whether Kamov’s radical tandem-rotor concept from the late 1960s would have fulfilled its promise had the program continued.
Thanks to Piotr Butowski.
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