Boeing, Leonardo Pitch Cost Savings, Flexibility for Proposed Huey Helicopter Replacement
Photo: Vivienne Machi (Staff)
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — The Boeing Co. and Leonardo Helicopters showed off the proposed aircraft for the U.S. Air Force's next-generation light utility helicopter, in the wake of a new draft request for proposals for the UH-1N Huey replacement.
Company officials on May 1 took several publications, including National Defense, on an aerial tour of downtown Philadelphia in an experimental model of the MH-139 multi-mission rotorcraft, covering about 20 miles roundtrip and reaching up to 140 knots.
The two companies plan to offer the aircraft to replace the service's aging UH-1N Huey fleet. They announced the partnership March 2 at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.
The airframe was designed from scratch nearly a decade ago to replace the UH-1N, which was first developed in the late 1960s, said J.D. Clem, director of Leonardo's Air Force division.
"It does everything the Huey does, better," he said. "It flies 50 percent faster; it cruises 50 percent faster … it has a 30 percent larger cabin."
The aircraft can reach a maximum speed of 165 knots and can carry 5,000 more pounds than the current Huey aircraft, Clem added. It features a Honeywell Primus Epic advanced avionics system that "does everything for you, so it reduces the pilot workload and it meets all of the FAA's requirements set," he noted.
The MH-139 will be based off of the AW139 medium twin-engine utility helicopter with U.S. Air Force-specific kits and modifications, officials said. The AW139 is used by several air forces around the world, including Algeria, Italy and Ireland, as well as several U.S. government organizations.
The Air Force released a second draft request for proposals via FedBizOpps on April 19, and announced a UH-1N replacement industry day for interested prime offerers, to be held May 8-9 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The final request for proposals is expected by this summer.
The service and company officials have remained tight-lipped about many requirements included in the draft RFP, but Leonardo officials noted that there are multiple Federal Aviation Administration-approved kits that could go on the MH-139.
"We’ve looked at what’s out there, [what] we can put on our bird, and we’re absolutely confident that we can meet the Air Force requirements and save the taxpayer a lot of money," Clem said, adding that taxpayers could save "a minimum of $1 billion."
Should the Boeing-Leonardo team win the Huey replacement contract, the MH-139 would be built at Leonardo's Philadelphia production facility, said William Hunt, the CEO of Leonardo Helicopters Philadelphia.
The company would not have to expand its line in order to accommodate the additional helicopters, he said. "Building out our processes … is really about how quick you can move within the production line; it’s not about space," he said.
Leonardo already builds the AW139 at the 275,000 square-foot facility at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, as well as the AW119 utility helicopter and the AW609, a tilt-rotor aircraft aimed at the civil aviation market, Hunt said. Approximately 900 AW139 aircraft have been built, and about one third of the aircraft are built in Philadelphia, he noted.
"We fully customize an aircraft in production, so we are not producing a basic aircraft and then moving to a modification center," Hunt said. "We’re inducting all of the kits that a customer is asking for the aircraft in the initial build cycle." That system allows for design flexibility, he noted.
Clem said the company works to "do things right the first time so we don’t have to take the aircraft apart later."
"What we want to do is we want to figure out what the customer needs and what the customer wants and then set it all up so we can make it once," he added. The Air Force has asked for all 84 of the Huey replacements to have the same configuration, he noted, adding "they want it to be flexible."
Winning the UH-1N replacement contract could mean more aircraft would be built in the United States, Hunt said.
The Huey is used primarily for airlift for emergency security forces, surveillance of off-base nuclear weapons convoys and VIP transport. The aircraft, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of Textron, Inc., first entered service in 1970.
Defense analysts expect the competition to be cutthroat. The Air Force is currently seeking 84 helicopters to replace the Huey. Sikorsky Aircraft and Bell have confirmed their intent to compete for the Huey replacement with the HH-60U Black Hawk and the UH-1Y utility helicopter, respectively.
Boeing will serve as the prime contractor for the MH-139, overseeing military-unique procurements, logistics support and support for equipment, test hubs and flight line maintenance, said Rick Lemaster, company director for tilt-rotor business development.
The Huey replacement was slated to be delivered by fiscal year 2020, but has been delayed until the second quarter of 2021, according to Air Force estimates.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, called the program delays "unacceptable" during an April 4 House Armed Services Committee hearing.
"Of all of the things in my portfolio, I can't even describe how upset I get about the helicopter replacement program," he said. "It's a helicopter, for gosh sakes. We ought to be able to go out and buy a helicopter and put it in the hands of the people that need it, and we should be able to do that quickly.
"As the commander of Strategic Command, I will put every influence I can on the United States Air Force to deliver that capability sooner rather than later," he continued.
Though the Huey replacement program has previously been subject to delays, sequestration and budget cuts, Clem said there remains a need to develop new models.
"Yes, the Air Force continues to have challenges, but … the Hueys are 1968, 69 model, original equipment items. They’re 47 years old. They’re maintaining them, but they can’t do the mission set. And every year that it gets older, it's that much harder to maintain."