AMARILLO, Texas – Both teams competing to fly future vertical lift demonstrators are deep in the throes of building the concept aircraft to fly in less than a year from now and with all the investment up front, Bell Helicopter strongly believes the Army could start building new aircraft by 2020.
The Army is shooting for a low-rate production goal to build a Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft by 2030 and believes it could potentially shorten that timeline. The service has taken receipt of analysis by both a Boeing-Sikorsky team and Bell that show how it's possible to get a new aircraft faster.
Boeing and Sikorsky will fly their SB-1 Defiant coaxial demonstrator while Bell will fly its V-280 Valor tiltrotor in 2017 as part of what the Army is calling the Joint Multi-Role technology demonstration (JMR-TD) ahead of an FVL program of record.
Army leaders and analysts have been skeptical of a shorter timeline, estimating the service likely won't see a new helicopter come online until 2040 or even 2045, and there's plenty of reason to be pessimistic looking back on the Army's procurement struggles when it comes to bringing a new helicopter to fruition. The service's current fleet is aging, gaining weight and some helicopters that have been around since as early as the 50s and 60s – like the CH-47 Chinook – will make it to their 100th birthday before retirement.
But Bell has a more optimistic outlook based on where the company believes its technology is today as it invests heavily in designing a next-generation tiltrotor, taking lessons learned from the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor with over 300,000 operational flight hours, and using state-of-the-art technology in digital design techniques and simulation.
Bell is estimating its air vehicle would be ready to go into the engineering and manufacturing development phase by 2020, Chris Gehler, the company’s director of global business development for advanced tiltrotor systems, told a few reporters Sept. 14 at Bell’s Amarillo helicopter production facility where the V-280 is being built.
And according to Robert Hastings, executive vice president and chief of staff at Bell Helicopter, in a separate Sept. 7 interview with Defense News, while the Army plans to have FVL ready for production by 2029, Bell has presented a plan to the Army to accelerate that to 2024.
"Bell doesn’t think it’s unnecessarily rushing to field a future helicopter, but "we would rather not see a gap between JMR and a program," Gehler said. "The question is where do you enter the program?"
Bell believes the Army could skip over a technology development phase and go right into the EMD phase.
"What has a billion dollars of industry and government investment done to shape the program timeline?" Gehler asked. "Those are significant questions that Mr. [Frank] Kendall [the Pentagon’s acquisition chief] and [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Milley are asking each other and their staffs right now."
The opportunity has arrived for the Army and the Defense Department "to say, ‘We actually have a successful linkage with science and technology,’ [based on] a lot of investment that has demonstrable impact to the program," Gehler said. One effect would be a big reduction in cost.
Bell is designing both the demonstrator and a performance specification design that will look more like what it would build for the military in the EMD phase of the program.
The demonstrator will already have met key performance parameters in terms of speed and range and other capabilities but it’s also being built now with affordability in mind, Gehler said. Typically, a first design of a helicopter is one of the most expensive investments in the life of a program, but the company is taking lessons learned from the V-22 in driving out cost for the V-280, such as manufacturing a single wing structure.
"We focused on materials, techniques in manufacturing that could eliminate cost," Gehler said. "not as sexy but it has actual real payoff for the customer."
And Bell has designed Valor using a "digital thread environment" where it was able to design the aircraft, collaborate with suppliers, engineers, and information technology teams in order to understand where interference might be and where changes need to be made. "So by the time it gets to the build," Gehler said, "pieces are snapping together, wires are going where they need to, the rework is significantly reduced."
And the aircraft is coming together just like that, according Gehler. The V-280 is 65 percent complete.
The team will install gear boxes and engines later in November. In February, final assembly will occur and by April, Bell will begin ground run testing in preparation for its first flight series in the summer.
Flight tests will run through calendar year 2018 and into 2019.
According to Sikorsky spokeswoman Jess Smith, the team completed ground testing of several major sub-components at supplier facilities and that testing will continue throughout 2016 and 2017 ahead of Defiant’s first flight.
The team has an operational Systems Integration Lab in Stratford, Connecticut, that is validating the system and software and a Propulsion System Test Bed under construction at its West Palm Beach, Florida, Development Flight Center currently validating mechanical systems.
And while the team has offered feedback to the Army regarding acceleration of FVL, Smith said, in a Sept. 15 statement, "it is up to the customer to determine the final schedule for FVL based on their needs."
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.