As it prepares to select a company to produce the aircraft, the Air Force will be watching closely the heated contest to build the next-generation VXX presidential helicopter. The winner of that race is likely to have a sizeable advantage in the competition for the PRV, said Joe Haddock, Sikorsky’s vice president for government relations.
“The Air Force doesn’t want to spend a lot of money for the PRV,” he told National Defense during a demonstration flight for the H-92 at Virginia’s Manassas Regional Airport. “It is perfectly willing to let the Navy pay the research and development costs while replacing the presidential helicopter and adapting that helicopter to the PRV role.”
The Navy—which is managing the program to replace the current presidential helicopter, known as Marine One—expects to award a $1.6 billion contract for 23 choppers in December. Competing for the job are teams led by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, of Stratford, Conn., and Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, based in Owego, N.Y.
Sikorsky—which has built every presidential helicopter since President Eisenhower began using them in 1957—is offering its H-92 Superhawk, a descendant of its H-60 Black Hawk and Sea Hawk.
Lockheed is promoting the US101, an American variant of AgustaWestland’s EH101, which already is operating in military and civilian roles, including search and rescue, in the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and Japan.
The Air Force contract will be bigger and more lucrative. The service wants to buy 132 PRVs to replace 104 aging HH-60G Pave Hawks, also built by Sikorksky. The contract could be worth as much as $9 billion, according to one industry source.
First deployed in 1982, the Pave Hawk—a version of the Army’s Black Hawk—is a twin-engine, medium-lift helicopter flown by the Air Force Special Operations, Air Education and Training and Air Reserve Commands, as well as the Air National Guard and Pacific Air Forces.
The Pave Hawk’s primary mission is to conduct day or night operations into hostile environments to recover downed aircrew or other isolated U.S. or allied personnel. Pave Hawks have performed such assignments in every U.S. conflict since the first Persian Gulf War.
As recently as December 2003, a Pave Hawk braved surface-to-air missiles and small-arms fire to pluck a wounded soldier from an enemy-occupied area near Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and fly him to a major trauma center in Baghdad.
Increasingly, however, maintenance crews are finding it difficult to keep the HH-60Gs airworthy. In 1999, the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council ruled that the Pave Hawk failed to meet necessary standards for survivability, all-weather operability, speed, range, communications and cabin space. After conducting an analysis of alternatives, the Air Force decided in 2001 to buy a new helicopter, rather than upgrade the Pave Hawk.
The service plans to issue a draft version of its request for proposals—detailing its requirements for the PRV—sometime after the first of the year, followed with a final RFP in May 2005 and a contract award in the fall.
It can’t happen fast enough, said Lt. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., vice commander of Pacific Air Forces. “The PACAF perspective on the PRV is that we do not need more studies,” he told a recent Defense Department personnel recovery conference in Arlington, Va.
“We keep advocating for the earliest decision,” Renuart said. “We need to move forward with this. We need to get on this horse wagon, because the HH-60 is getting too old.”
The project is attracting the attention of a number of U.S. and European helicopter manufacturers.
Sikorsky is planning to develop a version of the same H-92 Superhawk that it is marketing as the next presidential helicopter for the search and rescue mission, as well.
While the presidential version would be outfitted for the safety and comfort of the chief executive—complete with leather chairs, couches, wood paneling, carpeting and in-flight video conferencing—the PRV model would be equipped austerely for combat. It would include 22 fold-up troop seats, a large rear ramp, a medical workstation, a rescue hoist, a fast rope, rappelling equipment and an in-flight refueling probe.
The Superhawk would offer significant improvements over the Pave Hawk, said Christopher DeWitt, manager of U.S. Air Force requirements for Sikorsky. For one thing, the Superhawk’s fuel tanks are mounted externally, on the lower sides of the aircraft, he said during a recent Air Force Association conference in Washington, D.C. In many helicopters, including the Pave Hawk, they are placed directly beneath the cabin, increasing the risk of catastrophic fire during a crash, DeWitt said.
In fact, safety is one of the big selling points of the Superhawk, Haddock said. The civilian version, dubbed the S-92, “is the first and only helicopter in the world certified to the Federal Aviation Administration’s latest and most stringent safety standards, as well as the latest safety standards of the European Aviation Safety Agency and Joint Aviation Authorities,” he said.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of the US101 also stressed safety. Their helicopter will have three engines—one more than the Superhawk—making the US101 inherently safer, asserted Stephen D. Ramsey, US101 vice president and general manager at Lockheed.
In addition, Ramsey said, the US101’s cabin is one third larger than any other medium-lift helicopter. “It has a drive-on rear ramp, and it can transport vehicles as large as a sports-utility vehicle,” he asserted.
The US101 is a variant of the EH101, which is manufactured by AgustaWestland, an Anglo-Italian joint venture. But the U.S. version will be American-made, Ramsey said. Lockheed Martin will serve as prime contractor and systems integrator. Bell Helicopter Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas, will be in charge of production, and General Electric Aircraft Engines, of Cincinnati, Ohio, will supply the engines. In all, more than 200 U.S. companies from 41 states will participate in the program, creating and sustaining thousands of jobs, he said.
An attractive point about the US101 is that its technology already has been tested in Bosnia, Iraq and Canada’s coastal waters, Ramsey argued. “We have a hot production line that’s delivering helicopters right now,” he said.
In September, Northrop Grumman Corporation, of Los Angeles, and EADS North America, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, announced their intention to offer NATO’s NH90 as the next rescue helicopter.
The NH90 is a twin-engine, medium-size platform developed by NHIndustries, a joint venture of France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. It is intended to replace the U.S. UH-1 series, the French-German Puma family, and British Lynxes and Sea Kings.
Thus far, 11 countries have ordered more than 400 of the NH90s. The most recent to do so was Australia, which in August signed up for 12 platforms for its army. The first production model was delivered to the German army in May.
The NH90 features an all-composite, crashworthy fuselage with a low-radar signature, self-sealing fuel tanks, retractable landing gear and fly-by-wire flight controls. Fly-by-wire controls are electronic systems, which replace old-fashioned hydraulic lines to enhance maneuverability and safety.
Like the US101 group, the Northrop Grumman-EADS team also plans to build its PRV in the United States. An EADS subsidiary, American Eurocopter, has helicopter production facilities in Mississippi and Texas, but exactly where the NH90 would be built has not been decided, said Leroy Barnidge Jr., vice president and deputy for Northrop Grumman Airborne Ground Surveillance and Battle Management Systems, of Melbourne, Fla. “We still have to have that discussion,” he told an industry briefing.
The NH90 team acknowledged that it may be a little late getting into the competition, but in the end, they said, it is going to come down to who has the best horse in the race.
“We feel that it’s like if you had to pay a late fee to get Smarty Jones into the Kentucky Derby, you’d pay the fee,” said David R. Oliver Jr., executive vice president of EADS North America. Thoroughbred Smarty Jones won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness horse races.
Sikorsky officials questioned whether a U.S. military service should become dependent upon a foreign-made helicopter. Although all of the vendors plan to produce their aircraft within the United States, Sikorsky’s Haddock noted that many of the parts would come from abroad. “Suppose Italy’s foreign policy changed,” he asked, “and they didn’t want to supply parts anymore?” The H-92, Haddock said, would be “virtually 100 percent U.S. made.”
Another candidate for the PRV is the CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, which is being produced jointly by Bell Helicopter and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. The CV-22 is the Air Force version of the troubled V-22 Osprey vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft being developed for the Air Force, Marines and Navy. Like all variants of the Osprey, the CV-22 is designed to take off and land like a helicopter, then tilt its rotors and fly like a fixed-wing aircraft.
The Air Force Special Operations Command intends to buy 50 of them to replace the MH-60G, a special-ops version of the Pave Hawk, and the MH-53J Pave Low III, a special-ops modification of the HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant heavy-lift helicopter.
Now the Bell-Boeing team is planning to offer the CV-22 for the PRV mission, according to Al Cloud, Bell’s manager for U.S. Air Force requirements.
“The main things the CV-22 has to offer are speed and range,” Cloud said. The Osprey goes twice as fast and six times as far as the aircraft that it is replacing, he claimed. “People talk about getting patients to operating rooms within the ‘golden hour,’ when their chances of survival are greatest. Well, the CV-22 can get there faster.”
The Osprey, however, has been dogged by controversy since its first flight in 1989. Thus far, 30 crewmembers and passengers have died in crashes. The aircraft has been grounded twice.
Test flights resumed in May 2002, and a year later, program officials declared they had solved the Osprey’s aeromechanical and engineering problems. Then, in June of this year, an Osprey suffered a failure of components within its nacelle blower—which is supposed to cool the drive system—forcing an emergency landing aboard an amphibious assault ship off the coast of Maryland. Program officials said the faulty components will be replaced and do not affect the V-22’s overall airworthiness.