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Airbus tech powers USA racing yachtAirbus engineering powers USA racing yacht

The Oracle Team USA America's Cup racing yacht relies heavily on aviation engineering to get an edge over the competition. “We are literally now flying above the water,” said Oracle Team USA skipper and private pilot Jimmy Spithill, describing the America’s Cup entry he will command against the best of the rest of the world this spring in Bermuda.
Aviation-inspired attitude control systems help regulate the rigid airfoil sailing wings, main sail, flaps, and twin underwater elevators shown on Oracle Team USA's America's Cup catamaran as it's lifted toward the water for the first time in Bermuda, Feb. 15. Photo by David Tulis.

Pierre-Marie Belleau, the head of Airbus business development, said the size and the shape of the Oracle yacht’s dual wings have “huge similarities” to an Airbus jetliner wing. Their profile looks like the silhouette of an A320 wingtip “sharklet.”

There are, however, some unique differences between the two craft.

“In sailing conditions, the top of the sail wraps in a different direction [than the bottom] and creates additional force on the opposite side of the boat, which helps stability,” said Belleau. “It’s quite a different phenomenon and we can measure that very accurately to give us a much better understanding” of the trade-off between the wing providing speed and power, and the drag caused by twist.

The main element of the seven-story-tall sail wing is shaped like a "D" at its leading edge and is covered with “sort of a shrink-wrapped membrane,” explained Belleau. “The second element is on hinges and is controlled by hydraulics,” similar to an airplane flap in that both change the shape of the wing. By applying varying hydraulic pressure to three sets of trailing flaps, the overall sail contour can be adjusted to a particular shape depending on weather conditions. “The guys can change the wing camber all the time.”

“Just like an airplane landing, we want to get a really high lift coefficient and generate more force and we’ll put that flap at a really high angle, pretty much like an airplane landing,” said Ian “Fresh” Burns, Oracle Team USA’s director of performance. “If we can get a high angle of attack, we can generate more force and get more energy into the boat and go faster. It’s very similar to an airplane wing. In fact, it looks just like an airplane wing with maybe a little bigger flap and a little bit smaller main element.”

The "sharklet" foil wings fly just above the water and are “moving all the time” said Burns, as are the rear elevators, which extend into the water. “Good design means less energy wasted. We have rams, we have pumps, we have tubing” to help push fluid to where it needs to be. “The more drag you have, the slower you go.”

Spithill and his crew constantly manipulate the devices to harness wind energy and turn it into power and speed.

“Most airplanes if you let go of the stick you’ll go straight,” said Burns. “If you let go of the stick on our boat it’ll do a wheelie.” Burns said the yacht is “on that middle ground where you need the input from a skipper because the two key ingredients are how fast his reactions are and how good the control system is.”

When the horizontal wing airfoils were adopted, he estimated that the ships initially flew above the water about 50 percent of the time. With experience that figure rose to 80 percent fairly quickly “and now we’re up to 90 percent flying,” said Burns. It’s now likely “we can fly the whole race, 100 percent of the time,” but not without “a great control system and a crew that can handle it.” The boats “travel very fast, about 30 knots upwind and about 35 to 40 [knots] downwind.”

A month of America’s Cup sailing commences in Bermuda May 26 with teams from France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden battling to face the Oracle Team USA defenders beginning June 17. Airbus provided a dozen journalists with an advance look at the engineering that will be on display during the event. According to Spithill, Belleau, and Burns, the crew that touches the water first will likely lose the race.

“The Americas Cup is always a race for the best technology,” said Burns, “and whoever has the best, wins.”

  • The aviation-inspired Oracle Team USA America's Cup racing yacht is unveiled in Somerset, Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Airbus-engineered hydraulic controls help adjust the towering 79-foot tall wing and flap sail system powering Oracle Team USA's America's Cup racing vessel. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Skipper Jimmy Spithill, a private pilot, will command a six-person crew racing the aviation-inspired Oracle Team USA America's Cup yacht. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The America's Cup trophy is highlighted next to Oracle Team USA's racing catamaran at the ship's unveiling in Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Oracle Team USA's America's Cup racing catamaran is unveiled in Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Ian "Fresh" Burns, Oracle Team USA's director of performance and Pierre-Marie Belleau, the head of Airbus business development, discuss aviation engineering on the America's Cup racing yacht in Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • British navy dignitaries mingle with Oracle Team USA crew members attending the unveiling party for their America's Cup racing yacht in Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Pierre-Marie Belleau, the head of Airbus business development, shows aviation-inspired carbon fiber layup near the stern of the Oracle team USA America's Cup race ship. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aerodynamically designed carbon fiber and computer milled components are deployed aboard the Oracle Team USA's America's Cup racing entry. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Airbus-engineered attitude control of the rigid airfoil sailing wings powering Oracle/Team USA's America's Cup racing yacht will allow the ship to fly just above the water for additional speed and agility when it races to defend the trophy in Somerset, Bermuda. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Push button controls manipulated by skipper Jimmy Spithill force hydraulic fluid into rigid airfoil wings, a main sail and flap system, and underwater elevators powering Oracle Team USA's America's Cup entry. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Airbus engineers helped design hydraulic lines tucked into carbon fiber wing flap control arms powering Oracle Team USA's America's Cup catamaran. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Airbus engineers helped design the underwater elevator control system for Oracle Team USA's America's Cup racing yacht. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aviation-inspired attitude control systems help regulate the rigid airfoil sailing wings, main sail, flaps, and twin underwater elevators shown on Oracle Team USA's America's Cup catamaran as it's lifted toward the water for the first time in Bermuda, Feb. 15. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A smaller version of the Oracle Team USA America's Cup yacht demonstrates how wind energy and aircraft technology enable the craft to fly above the water. Photo by Sam Greenfield, Oracle Team USA.
  • The America's Cup begins May 26 in Bermuda when racing yachts from France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden compete to challenge the defender, Oracle Team USA. Photo by David Tulis.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Aviation Industry

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