NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Several major players in the helicopter industry pitched possible solutions at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference for the Navy’s next initial-entry, rotary-wing training helicopter as the service signals stronger intentions to replace its aging TH-57 Sea Ranger fleet.
The Navy has announced during recent congressional hearings that it plans to buy a new training helicopter in fiscal 2020. For years, the service has put out requests for information asking industry for training helicopter options with the latest coming out in October 2017.
That RFI left some requirements open-ended such as whether the aircraft should have one or two engines, but has asked for the helicopter to be Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) certified, an obvious requirement when flying over sea or in reduced visibility environments. It’s also assumed the Navy wants a commercial off-the-shelf aircraft.
The TH-57 is more than reaching the end of its life, having first been fielded to the Navy’s training fleet in the 1970s.
So three companies — Airbus, Bell and Leonardo — all brought examples of possible training helicopters to the Navy’s biggest trade show.
Airbus is keeping all of its options on the table for a Navy trainer because the service has yet to define all of its requirements, according to John Roth, senior director of business development for Airbus Helicopters Inc.
“We have a broad product range that goes from light, single-engine into light, twin-engine to medium and heavy twin-engine platforms,” Roth told Defense News at Sea-Air-Space. “Our approach is we will evaluate those requirements and offer based on those requirements. However, given the nature of training and how the complexity of training has evolved over time, we do have recommendations for the Navy as it relates to having the best possible solution to accomplish all of their missions.”
And one recommendation is the H135 light, twin-engine helicopter Airbus had on display at the show.
“We believe this is certainly a very capable potential solution that meets all the Navy requirements as a commercial off-the-shelf product,” Roth said.
The H135 is similar to the EC-145 helicopter that the Army now uses for its trainer, replacing its TH-67 Creek helicopters with LUH-72A Lakota light utility helicopters already in the service’s inventory beginning in 2014.
The Army’s decision to retire the TH-67s and replace them with Lakotas was met with much debate as to whether it made sense to teach helicopter pilots basic skills in a more complex digital glass cockpit helicopter with twin engines.
And the decision was even met with a lawsuit. Leonardo — then known as AgustaWestland — sued the Army over its decision not to compete for a new trainer but to instead sole-source a helicopter already fielded by the service. Leonardo initially won the lawsuit but the decision was overturned in the appellate court.
The Army is still filling out its Lakota training fleet, but, Roth said, “from a qualitative perspective, we’ve got some very positive feedback that talks to capability of the aviators when they complete the training and having them more prepared for the advanced aircraft once they arrive at their advanced training stations.”
The fact that both the Lakota and the H135 have advanced digital glass cockpits, four-axis autopilot and twin-engine capability with Full Authority Digital Engine (FADEC) controls “all prepared them for the type of vehicle that they are going to get in when they get into their advanced training,” Roth said.
The Army has taken tasks normally taught in the more expensive advanced aircraft and brought those down to basic training, he added.
“There has been a lot of advantages realized from that decision that we think the Navy will be able to take advantage of as well,” Roth said.
The H135s, if purchased by the Navy, would be built at its Columbus, Mississippi, production line where commercial EC135s and Lakotas are built.
The helicopter pitched to the Navy is also used by approximately a dozen countries with nearly 130 aircraft serving as a primary trainer worldwide, Roth said.
Bell 407 GXi
Bell would be the incumbent in a competition for a new Navy trainer, being the current manufacturer of the TH-57.
The company plans to offer up its 407 GXi, according to Steve Mathias, Bell’s vice president for Global Military Business Development.
Bell has already built and sold 1,500 407s worldwide which have flown over 4.75 million hours, he said, so the helicopter is “very reliable, sustainable, maintainable glass cockpit, just a great overall aircraft,” Mathias said.
And from a programmatic perspective, he said, choosing Bell’s trainer offers “a lot less risk because it’s very similar to the TH-57 that the Navy currently has, so a transition from a Bell product to a Bell product would be a lower risk, I would think, to the customer.”
Bell also provides many of the helicopters the Navy and Marine Corps fly today such as the UH-1Y Venom, the AH-1Z Viper and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor and therefore has a high level of experience working with the services on a day-to-day basis “so we very closely understand what the Navy requirements are,” Mathias argued.
The company is hoping the Navy chooses to go with a single-engine aircraft because it would “be less costly to operate” and less complex to train, according to Mathias. He added that he believes the choice would offer the best value to the service.
Italian company Leonardo is making a play for the trainer with plans to submit its TH-119, which puts them, like Bell, into the single-engine camp, according to Andrew Gappy, who is in charge of the company’s government sales and programs.
The helicopter is a variant of the AW119Kx, a single-engine, full-spectrum training aircraft and can be used for training from the basics like learning how to hover above the ground all the way to advanced tactics.
And while Leonardo is a foreign company, all of the 119s worldwide are manufactured in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The 119 is also IFR certified to meet that Navy requirement.
The helicopter is known for its significant power, which means the aircraft’s training mission sets can grow and change over time without affecting its performance, Gappy said.
It’s important for the Navy to buy a new trainer now because, Gappy said, he trained on the TH-57 “a long time ago.” The aircraft averages roughly 70,000 flight hours a year and will become more and more costly to operate as it continues to age.
“When I went through, the TH-57 had a lot in common with combat aircraft, how the aircraft flew and instrumentation training was really relevant,” he said.
“It’s so disparate now with glass cockpits and all of them are multi-bladed rotor systems that fly differently than the twin rotor system, so it’s really resetting the baseline,” which allows the service to incorporate more advanced training into the basic courses that has migrated away from that training due to the loss in power margin, Gappy said.
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.