ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The first flight of the US Army's UH-60 Victor-model Black Hawk helicopter last month marks the beginnings of new opportunities for Northrop Grumman in the global cockpit avionics market, according to a company executive.
Northrop Grumman won a US Army contract to upgrade Black Hawk L-model helicopter cockpits from analogue to integrated, open-architecture digital ones. The converted version is called the Victor-model.
Back when Northrop first won the contract, Jeff Palombo said the company was looking ahead to how it could take technology and lessons learned from the UH-60V program into the future -- perhaps even as far as the service's plans to field a new helicopter in the 2030s.
Three prototype helicopters have spent the last two years in the Prototype Integration Facility -- the PIF -- at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, undergoing integration. The plan is to ultimately convert 760 L-model variants to the V-model which brings them to an M-model standard, the most up-to-date variant of the Black Hawk.
The Army said it needed to use innovative means to afford and develop the cockpit, which the service would have otherwise been unable to do.
The first flight of the V-model happened Jan. 20, which is -- rather remarkably in Pentagon development schedules -- exactly the date planned for the first flight as set forth in the original contract, Palombo noted.
What that shows, according to Palombo, is the capability and adaptability of the software. Because of how the software was written, the program stayed perfectly on schedule.
"In this instance, we are modular from a hardware perspective and a software standpoint, so we can literally separate the piece of hardware from the integrated avionics cockpit," Palombo said.
Northrop demonstrated the modularity of the mission computer by taking what it had designed for the AH-1 Zulu for the Marine Corps and applying it to the L-model Black Hawk cockpit digitization effort.
Now the sky’s the limit in terms of what Northrop can provide to customers worldwide, according to Palombo.
The company has trademarked the name FlightPro Gen III for the mission computer.
"Now you have this mission computer with a proven and tested [operational flight program] whose integrated avionics, whatever it wants to be, whatever its capability of flight controls or hardware or interfaces, all of this now can be rapidly configured using this same OFP for Black Hawk or any other airplane -- rotary wing or fixed wing," Palombo said.
Around the world, countries with L-model Black Hawks might be interested in upgrading to a digital cockpit or they might be interested in streamlining a fleet of different aircraft with the same cockpit to help reduce logistics and training costs of a mixed-fleet or they could design brand new cockpits using the technology for brand new helicopters, Palombo described.
It's clear many countries, including in the Middle East, are looking to upgrade equipment already procured. Budgets are tight as oil prices remain down, even for the richest countries, and there's more concern over how to sustain existing equipment than buying new.
Palombo said there are a whole host of ways to sell the FlightPro Gen III to international customers.
Should a country want to purchase a UH-60 Victor-model, that would likely be through a foreign military sale, Palombo said. But if a country wanted something entirely different, it could buy the FlightPro Gen III through a direct commercial sale and cockpit hardware would be designed around it.
Countries would have a "large degree of autonomy" in terms of configuration, sustainment and upgrading their own platforms using just the FlightPro Gen III software development kit, he added.
Since the time Northrop won the contract to integrate the new cockpit into the L-model fleet, Palombo said there’s been a "tremendous amount of inquiry" from international customers, who will be watching further flight tests of the V-model very closely.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.