WASHINGTON — In West Palm Beach, Florida, and Amarillo, Texas, two different aircraft are coming together in a sprint to the starting line of the Army's much anticipated flight demonstrations of future helicopter concepts in 2017.
The Army plans to design and field a future vertical lift aircraft and is expected to kick off that program of record in the 2019 time frame. The expectation is to buy a new family of helicopters through a competition and field the new aircraft at some point in the early 2030s, although the Army has talked about speeding up that fielding timeline to the late 2020s.
But first the Army plans to demonstrate Joint Multi-Role (JMR) air vehicle capability at a 2017 flight demonstration in order to help the service fully define requirements for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program.
A Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin team is mating the entire wing -- which is one big part -- onto the fuselage in Texas of its advanced tiltrotor concept the V-280 Valor, according to Vince Tobin, Bell's vice president for advanced tiltrotor systems.
Sikorsky and Boeing have all of its Defiant coaxial helicopter parts in fabrication, some have already been delivered to the final assembly facility in Florida, Pat Donnelly, Boeing's program director, said. Notably, the fuselage is in California being assembled and the team plans to conduct flight loads verification before shipping it to Florida.
Bell's Tobin said the nacelles, compartments that hold engines, fuel or other equipment, were mated to the wing in March and they "fit like a glove."
In fact, assembly of parts has gone so smoothly due to the use of 3-D design and simulation that Tobin, a self-proclaimed superstitious man, said, "Knock on wood, I am sure there are challenges to come, but so far, from a structural perspective, it's all good."
Bell had similar luck when Spirit Aerosystems assembled the fuselage for the Valor last year using the 3-D design environment. "It basically came together almost perfectly, Chris Gehler, director of the company's advanced tiltrotor programs, said in October 2015.
The 3-D tool, which was developed in the last two to three years, has the ability to "change the affordability cost curve on this thing, so your non-recurring tooling significantly reduces and front-end costs are reduced," Gehler said.
Tobin said the tooling has also not caused any issues in the assembly process so far thanks to the 3-D simulations.
What's left for Bell is to stuff the nacelles with gear boxes and engines and to get ready for restrained ground runs "by around this time next year," Tobin said.
"The good news is everything to date is tracking as planned," he added, and the aircraft should be ready for its first flight in the fall of 2017.
While Defiant is assembled, the Boeing-Sikorsky team is also testing all of its flight controls and software, electrical and hydraulic systems in its JMR System Integration Lab in Stratford, Connecticut, with real flight hardware, according to Doug Shidler, Sikorsky's program director.
Raider, Sikorsky's smaller version of Defiant using X2 technology, which is fully assembled and flying, has a similar SIL in Connecticut. The X2 technology demonstrated in 2010 was a 6,000-pound helicopter, Raider is 11,000 pounds and Defiant will weigh 30,000 pounds.
"The Systems Integration Lab is a very important part of our program for pre-flight and post-flight verification. It helps us ensure the best, most effective technology and capabilities are being brought to bear," Shidler said. "The assembly and testing are proceeding well."
It's not yet clear whether the Army will first build medium-lift helicopters to replace UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches or if it will choose to prioritize building a light helicopter. The Army decided to retire its OH-58 Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopters in 2013. Apaches are filling in on the armed scout mission, but it's not an ideal solution as the helicopters are more expensive to operate -- much like taking a Lamborghini to go grocery shopping.
Both teams building demonstrator aircraft believe their solutions are easily scalable no matter what direction the Army decides to go.
Sikorsky has proven that it can build helicopters with the same technology in different weight classes.
And Bell has even designed and flew a tiltrotor unmanned aircraft system several years ago for a now defunct Coast Guard program, according to Tobin.
"The beauty of tiltrotors is they are eminently scalable," he said. "From a scaling perspective, it's not really a challenge so we are ready to go" with whatever the Army decides, he added.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.