WASHINGTON — Bell’s technology demonstrator designed to show the Army the realm of the possible in Future Vertical Lift capability has flown 200 hours since its first flight three years ago, according to Keith Flail, the company’s executive vice president for advanced vertical lift systems.
The V-280 Valor tiltrotor parted ways with the tarmac for the first time on Dec. 18, 2017, at 1:59 p.m. CDT at a Bell facility in Amarillo, Texas. Defense News reported the flight as the aircraft was still in the air, but the aircraft logged roughly 15 to 20 minutes before returning to solid ground.
Since then Bell’s clean-sheet-designed aircraft has flown more than 150 sorties, Flail told Defense News in a recent interview, and the extensive effort has driven down risk for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft program for the U.S. Army.
Valor hit the 200 flight hour mark on Dec. 4, Flail said.
The Army wants to field FLRAA — an aircraft expected to fly twice as fast and twice as far as a conventional helicopter — by 2030.
Bell is gearing up to compete head-to-head with a Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky and Boeing team, which built the only other flying technology demonstrator in the effort leading up to a program of record. The SB-1 Defiant coaxial helicopter flew for the first time in March 2019 after struggling with rotor blade manufacturing problems and working through other more minor kinks.
Both companies have entered a competitive development and risk reduction phase awarded in March 2020 ahead of the FLRAA program. The Army announced this month that it intends to proceed into a competition between just Sikorsky-Boeing and Bell to produce FLRAA.
Valor has been put through its paces, completing key performance parameters and continuing to prove out possible threshold and objective requirements for FLRAA.
The aircraft had its first public flight in June 2018 where it reached cruising speeds of 195 knots and was put through its paces in hover mode.
In May 2019, the aircraft completed low-speed agility maneuver testing — which made up the final key performance parameters left to prove out with the system as part of the technology demonstration phase.
Valor flew autonomously for the first time a year ago. The aircraft performed an autonomous takeoff, conversion into cruise mode, precision navigation to various waypoints, loiter maneuvers, conversion into vertical-takeoff-and-landing mode, and landed autonomously.
Other achievements include demonstrating an integrated system from Lockheed Martin that provides the pilots and aircrew a 360-degree view through the skin of the aircraft in the spring of 2019.
And in early 2020, Bell also integrated the Tactical Common Data Link and transmitted information between Valor and the ground station to include basic flight data and showed it would be able to provide targeting information to help long-range precision fires weapons hit targets more accurately, according to a Dec. 17 company statement.
In the same flight, Bell demonstrated sling-load capability, Flail said. “During a single sortie, the team performed multiple cargo lifts to demonstrate the procedure and coordination of ground crew, aircraft, crew chief, pilots and the behavior of the loads for the V-280,” the statement notes.
Over the course of the technology demonstration period, Flail added, the aircraft was also able to show its reliability and availability.
“This configuration of tiltrotor really shows how robust it is in terms of reliability and availability because one of the tricks with proving that is you have to accumulate enough data to show that you do have a reliable system,” he said. “A lot of your critical items, your gearboxes and your blades … those are typical cost drivers downstream and today, we still have the original six blades and gearboxes on this aircraft.”
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.