WASHINGTON — Paul Lemmo was 19 years old when he became an electrical engineering intern at what is now the largest defense company in the world. Now, decades later, he is serving as president of Sikorsky, having taken charge at the Lockheed Martin subsidiary in January.

After a decade of working as an engineer, Lemmo moved over to the business development side of the company, climbing the ranks by supporting and leading programs from fire control sensors all the way to littoral combat ships, the Aegis system and global logistics support for special operations forces.

Lemmo worked along the edges of Lockheed’s helicopter unit by running the business that includes AH-64 Apache attack helicopter sensors, such as its sniper targeting pod. Through his focus on special operations forces, he learned a great deal about the helicopters in the special ops fleet, including the Black Hawk variant.

But now Lemmo has landed in the leadership role that is taking a nearly 100-year-old company founded by Igor Sikorsky and ensuring it is well-positioned to provide next-generation vertical lift aircraft to the U.S. military. He is taking charge on the eve of the U.S. Army’s venture into its future vertical lift capability while supporting major production lines like the service’s workhorse — the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Sikorsky is offering its Raider X in a competition to build the Army’s future attack reconnaissance aircraft, FARA, and is partnering with Boeing to build the service’s future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA. The team has built and is flying a demonstrator — SB-1 Defiant — as part of a competitive risk reduction and capabilities development effort ahead of the FLRAA competition. A request for proposals is expected to be released in June.

Defense News sat down with Lemmo at Lockheed’s Rotary Wing Innovation Center in Arlington, Virginia, to talk about how he’s leading the company’s charge into the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarify.

You took over at Sikorsky during a global pandemic. How did you manage the transition?

At first when I got the position, I thought: “This is kind of scary.” I’ve done a lot of transitions in my career, but never during a pandemic where you have to figure out how you’re going to meet with your employees and customers. If we were at the beginning of the pandemic, it probably would have been more difficult. But by now, we’ve all figured out how to communicate, how to meet, and so pretty quickly the team set me up with employee groups. I met with everyone from hourly employees up to my leadership team, mostly remote. I have done a few in-person engagements.

This year, walking the line, obviously, that was one of the first things I wanted to do, and get out and get a feel for the business and our employee base [in Stratford, Connecticut]. [My predecessor,] Dan Schultz, was very helpful in the transition. I’m seeing a rapid evolution to in-person activity. We’ve had a lot of customer visits. The commandant of the Marine Corps was up here. He wanted to focus on the [CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter] program. We had the acting secretary of the Navy, who also wanted to look at the CH-53K as well as the MH-60 Romeo. We had the vice commandant of the Coast Guard. I was also able to head down to Huntsville, Alabama, recently for our flight demonstration [of the S-97 Raider].

From left, Sikorsky pilot Christiaan Corry, Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo and Sikorsky Vice President of Future Vertical Lift Andy Adams discuss the S-97 Raider variants during a flight demonstration at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., in April 2021. (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
From left, Sikorsky pilot Christiaan Corry, Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo and Sikorsky Vice President of Future Vertical Lift Andy Adams discuss the S-97 Raider variants during a flight demonstration at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., in April 2021. (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

What about your new job appeals to you?

One of the things that I really liked about Sikorsky is the heritage. We’re coming up on 100 years of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation; 2023 will be a hundred years. As I’ve learned from the team, we always say we’ve got one foot in the past because we don’t want to lose that heritage; but obviously at least one foot in the future with all the technology development we have. We are booming right now with the ramp up in the CH-53K production line and the Combat Rescue Helicopter production line. And Black Hawk is still humming along. We have a lot of international orders for MH-60 Romeo, so that’s pretty robust as well.

I’ve worked in a lot of different areas of the corporation. I believe Sikorsky is one of the leaders in the corporation in digital transformation. If you think about the CH-53K and the CRH, those were kind of born digital, and we’re seeing significant results and efficiencies in manufacturing those helicopters. We’re accelerating the learning curve significantly. And we like to talk about having the learning curve of the 100th aircraft by the time you’ve hit the 20th, for things that have been born in a digital environment. And with future vertical lift, or FVL, we’re taking it to the next level, and it will literally be digital from design all the way through sustainment.

As you walk around the production lines, particularly for the CH-53K and you contrast it, let’s say to the Black Hawk, you’re going to see it’s paperless. There’s a lot of automated tools that are connected right to our digital CAD databases, etc. So a lot of investment going on there.

What are your near-term priorities?

My No. 1 priority is getting the CH-53K program and the Combat Rescue Helicopter program out of development and into production. And we’re kind of there now, we’re sort of in between. Both of them are going into [initial operational test and evaluation] IOT&E and we’re in low-rate production, transitioning to full rate. So No. 1 is getting those done and into production and making sure we’re delivering for our customers. Those are the focus because of the state they are in now.

Second is FVL. Future vertical lift is our future. So while I’m very fortunate that we’ve got a strong backlog, that’s out a number of years. By the time FVL is ready for production, we’re going to need it; those other programs will have tapered off. And FVL is super critical to our future.

The next thing is really the continuation of our digital transformation at Sikorsky. I talked about how far we’ve come, but I really view the FVL program as taking that next jump. Those are probably the top three priorities.

It’s unlikely upcoming defense budgets will grow. They’ll more likely shrink. What happens to the business if the Army can’t deliver on two future helicopters or chooses to buy less than planned?

The Army has told us that both are priorities, and that is what they’re focused on right now. We haven’t changed our approach — we’re focused on both priorities, both FARA and FLRAA. We’re investing a lot of money in both programs. So while I would agree that we don’t know what is to come in future budgets, I think we’re getting a handle around the fiscal 2022 budget, and I think both those programs are going to be fully supported. But we don’t really know beyond that, but can’t change our approach.

I do think it’s going to be a year before we really know this administration’s impact on the budget, but I will say obviously we have to think about those contingencies. One of the things that we’re focused on still is international. And you might say: “Well, are international economies going to be doing as well? Can they afford post-COVID-19?” I think that’s a fair question. But in the rotary wing space, we’ve done analysis. There’s a very large, old fleet out there, particularly of the “UH” class, that a lot of countries are starting to recapitalize, and we’ve been winning a bunch of those in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. And so we see a large market space out there for the Black Hawk, essentially either as a foreign military sale or the commercial version. We’re going to be still focused on the entire space, including international. We see a big, big opportunity there.

We’re engaged in one [competition] right now in Romania. S-70 is our offering there, and there are a lot of international competitors on that. A recent win a year or so ago was the Philippines, and now it looks like they’re going to come back for an additional buy.

The other big international market is for the CH-53K. So we had the big win in Israel — that was very significant. When the Israelis buy, they’re extremely meticulous about their evaluation and they want the best product, so we’re really pleased that they selected the CH-53K. And we’re still engaged in Germany. Germany has been up and down on that acquisition. But they have a need and it’s a very large fleet there, so we’ll be continuing to follow that.

You are in the thick of developing entrants for both of the Army’s future vertical lift efforts. How much of a focus is it for the Army to have commonality between FARA and FLRAA? The offerings differ.

That’s certainly the approach we took. When it comes to everything but the airframe, the mission systems, the avionics, the Army absolutely is looking for commonality. And not only commonality across the FVL but with their enduring fleets like Black Hawk and so forth. So they’ve been strongly encouraging industry to have a modular, open-system architecture. In my discussions, they would love to see something that could be potentially brought back to their legacy fleet, their enduring fleet — or if they had a modernization program in the enduring fleet.

On the aircraft side, I’m getting the sense they want to buy the best aircraft for each of those respective missions that they’re having competitions for. Certainly we — from the beginning with the X2 aircraft — had this vision of scalability so that while the exact part may not be common, the technology is absolutely common. If you have Raider at 12,000 pounds versus Defiant at 33,000 pounds, you fly them the same way, you maintain them very similarly, and you get that commonality and that similarity for the pilots and maintainers, the trainers, etc. We certainly think there’s value in that.

In addition, on the Defiant side, because it is potentially a Black Hawk replacement, we’ve tried to ensure that it fits in the footprint of a Black Hawk, that the infrastructure that’s needed to support a Defiant is going to be very similar to a Black Hawk. You don’t need larger hangar spaces or things like that.

Does the Army have its requirements right for FLRAA? It conducted war games and analysis on the mission and is preparing to release a request for proposals this summer.

The Army put out a draft RFP and requirements back in December 2020 and asked for industry’s comment. And industry sent hundreds and hundreds of comments. We did, and we can tell that the other team did as well. The Army has been engaging us all throughout this year in dialogue around that, and we’ve certainly had a lot of discussions with the Army about what it values, how it’s going to evaluate these offerings because they’re very different. You have a tiltrotor and X2. And what’s most important? Is it just pure speed? Is it altitude? We’ve gotten to a pretty good place around that. The Army’s going to measure the totality of the mission, and that’s what they should do because it is about that.

This isn’t a drag race where you have two aircraft that are just going to fly in a straight line at a certain altitude. We can already say the tilt rotor is a little faster, but the mission requires takeoff, ingress and then a lot of maneuvering at the X. So really what we’ve stressed is you should be measuring the total time of the mission. Speed is kind of distance over time, and time includes everything to do that mission. We certainly think with the maneuverability of Defiant, it’s going to provide a speed advantage when you measure in terms of time to complete the mission. It may not win in a drag race, but it’s pretty close. And by the way, the objective here was to roughly get twice the speed of a Black Hawk. We’re there. Defiant will do over 230 knots, which is that threshold requirement.

What have you done to reduce risk for the FLRAA program with the Defiant demonstrator?

There’s been a lot of prototyping done. Collectively across our X2 technology, we have over 200 flight hours. When you include all the ground testing we’ve done, I think it’s over 700 hours. Sikorsky’s approach to developing new aircraft is to have a propulsion system test bed on the ground and run many, many hours on the transmissions and all the avionics components. So we’ve got tons of hours on that, and then over 200 in the air with the various aircraft. The fact that all that’s been done brings a sense of maturity to the competition. And this whole digital thread is showing us that we can accelerate the development process and testing process, we can do more testing via model-based engineering versus “I have to go fly every single test point.” It isn’t just like, “Hey, there’s an accelerated schedule and just go wing it,” right? There’s actually science behind how to accelerate this through use of digital tools and models.

Where you are in preparing your FARA prototype to fly next year?

Things are progressing really well. We had the fuselage constructed, and now we’re starting to put everything in it. We plan to fly late next year. We continue to fly the Raider. Raider flew a few weeks back [in Alabama,] and we’ll continue to do those demonstrations because that is very close. I think it’s about an 80 percent scale of Raider to Raider X, so very close to the size and power levels, etc.