SAN DIEGO — Jimmy Spithill and his mates with Oracle Team USA became the ultimate nautical flyboys last year, using a wing sail and hydrofoils to speed above the waves on San Francisco Bay on their way to a stirring America's Cup victory.
Already backed by software tycoon Larry Ellison's fortune, Oracle Team USA got a huge boost Thursday when it announced a technology partnership with France-based Airbus that will give its design team access to engineers and other experts from the aircraft manufacturer.
"I think this will give us a competitive advantage," Spithill, Oracle's skipper, said by phone from New York, where the deal was announced. "When you look at tech groups and companies, this is a perfect fit. We both fly — we fly above water — and we both build wings. They build composite fuselages and our platforms are composite. This will be a really cool project."
Oracle will have access to 15 to 20 Airbus experts in areas such as aerodynamics, instrumentation and simulation, composites, structures, hydraulics and data analysis.
"This is a completely new endeavor for us," Airbus President and CEO Fabrice BrÃ©gier said in a statement. "By taking on an extreme technology and sports project of this magnitude we stretch our competencies and further boost our agility. There are so many similarities between the America's Cup yacht and our aircraft design, that each partner benefits from an excellent platform not only to learn and grow but also to win."
The America's Cup zoomed into the 21st century in 2013. The 72-foot catamarans were powered by 131-foot mainsails that looked and performed like jetliner wings. When the boats reached "takeoff speed," both hulls popped out of the water onto hydrofoils and flew across the tops of the waves.
The cats for the 2017 America's Cup will be reduced to 62 feet in order to save money, but are expected to be as powerful as their predecessors.
Spithill led Oracle on one of the greatest comebacks in sports. Trailing 8-1 against Emirates Team New Zealand, Oracle won nine straight races to retain the oldest trophy in international sports.
The foils on the bottom of the rudders are like the horizontal stabilizers on the tail of an airplane. The foil on the daggerboard, shaped like an L or J, is like the upturned winglets on the ends of jetliners' wings.
Spithill obtained his pilot's license in 2009 in order to better understand the radical wing sail Oracle used to power its giant trimaran in its 2010 America's Cup victory.
"When we pulled the trigger on the big wing, the only way to learn aerodynamics was by learning to fly," Spithill said.
Spithill said he visited Airbus headquarters in France a few weeks ago and spent time on the A350 simulator used to train pilots.
"The beauty of that is they can make changes or stop if they make a mistake," said Spithill, who was at the helm of Oracle's first 72-foot cat when it capsized on San Francisco Bay in October 2012, setting back training several months.
Spithill said he thinks there eventually will be a simulator for America's Cup catamarans.
"No question," he said. "OK, initially it might not be with full movement and be like an amusement park ride, but if we can do a simple simulator, we can look at configuration changes or settings on foils and rudders before we hit water. That would be massive."
The deal came about after Oracle project coordinator Ian "Fresh" Burns made a presentation to Airbus in France prior to the last America's Cup, which resulted in BrÃ©gier coming to the America's Cup in San Francisco, said Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts, a five-time Cup winner who has a degree in engineering.
Airbus is scheduled to open an assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama, next year.
After hearing the news of a French company partnering with an American syndicate, Team France said it was even more motivated to prove its skills against international rivals. Team France also said in an online posting, "This only reinforces our belief in the capacity of a French team to finally win the largest sailing event in the world."
Coutts is expected to decide before the end of the year whether the next America's Cup will be in San Diego or Bermuda, a British territory.
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