Future Vertical Lift Takes Step Forward (UPDATED)

By Valerie Insinna

Future vertical lift concept

Army officials have been talking for almost a decade about new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to replace its aging fleets of helicopters. The recent kickoff of a technical demonstrator program marks a transition from dialogue to actually putting an aircraft in the sky.

Prototypes for the new platform — interchangeably called joint multi-role or future vertical lift — could be flown as early as fiscal year 2017. A broad area announcement for the joint multi-role technical demonstrator was put out in August 2012.

Bell Helicopter, AVX Aircraft Co., European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., and a Boeing-Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. team submitted proposals in March and will be jockeying for a chance to prove their designs. Industry officials expect that the Army will choose two vendors in September to build demonstrators that will fly some time between 2017 and 2019.

The service’s aviation applied technology directorate wants to evaluate whether technology is mature enough to produce an aircraft that can go at least 230 knots, which is much faster than the 90 to 145 knot top speed of current helicopters.  

 “Everything they want to do with JMR” is about speed, said retired Army Brig. Gen. Steven Mundt, vice president of business development for EADS North America. But achieving high speeds will not be the only challenge for industry.

“We’ve clearly shown that we can get above the 200 knots. Sikorsky has shown they can get above the 200 knots. If you look at V-22 by Bell, they’ve shown that they can get above the 200 knots,” Mundt told National Defense. “It’s not an issue about can you get to that speed, it’s can you get to that speed at those rates, do the kinds of missions and maintain the agility and flexibility of a rotorcraft?”

The plan is to reach initial operational capability for future vertical lift by 2034, but current fiscal austerity and the service’s previous attempts at fielding new rotorcraft have left some skeptical.

Proponents of future vertical lift say while the current fleet is still able to carry out its missions, older platforms are racing toward the end of their service lives. Merely upgrading current designs will not be enough for the Army to maintain its edge.

“The aircraft that we’ve been operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, they’re the best in the world ... [but] they had significant capability shortfalls in things like altitude performance, speed, range and cockpit awareness,” said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of American Helicopter Society International. “We lost over 400 aircraft and over 600 Americans in accidents.”

The Army’s goals are aggressive, but achievable, Hirschberg said. But with changes in administrations, congresses and budgets, and about 20 years to go until the aircraft are in operation, “it’s going to be challenging to keep the funding together and to reach the ultimate goal of fielding something,” he explained.

Others aren’t as optimistic. Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, said the cost of the future vertical lift program doesn’t seem to justify the investment required. It would be a safer bet for the Army to continue rejuvenating existing platforms by installing newer systems and building new airframes when necessary, he argued.

“They would have to come up with enough of a reason to spend that money, and history tells us it might not be there,” he said. “Is there enough other stuff that you would add, that can’t be retrofitted, that can’t be inserted into an existing airframe?

“I’m not sure that the case is there for new technology, and betting that it will be in another 10 or 15 years, that might be a little aggressive,” he added.

In the past 25 years, the military has only fielded one new rotorcraft program of record ­— Bell-Boeing’s V-22 Osprey, which is used by the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command.  The Army plans to eventually replace all of its current rotorcraft with light, medium, heavy and ultra-sized variants of future vertical lift.

The service is looking for a faster aircraft with increased range and payload that can also operate in higher altitudes and in hotter temperatures, said Army Maj. Gen. Kevin W. Mangum, commander of the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala.

“Optimizing a platform for any one of those attributes, there’s a tradeoff. We need a platform and a capability that can get after all of those things and have a vertical capability,” he said in a January speech at the Association of the United States Army’s Aviation Symposium. “There are aircraft that can get places quickly. The question is, what in the world is it going to do when it gets there? It isn’t [just] about getting there fast, it [also] needs to carry a payload.”

Such capabilities will be increasingly important as the Army’s footprint in Afghanistan shrinks, leaving fewer resources and personnel to cover the same area, Mangum said.

The service is also looking for greater range as it ratchets up its presence in the Asia-Pacific. For instance, the Army needs nine rotorcraft from its current fleet to cover the Philippines. It could do the same job with only four medium future vertical lift aircraft, according to materials presented by Mangum.

Army officials hope to save money by having a common, scalable core architecture across all variants of the aircraft. 

“The power of commonality, of being able … to pull a part off of a medium future vertical lift and put it on a light [variant] or vice versa is absolutely powerful,” Mangum said. “Also it would cut down, obviously, on our logistics footprint as we want to be more expeditionary, more mobile and more agile.”

Data from the technical demonstrations will eventually inform the formal requirements for future vertical lift, but the Army has floated some of its desired capabilities.

According to Mangum, the medium-lift variant would cruise at 230 knots, travel distances of about 263 miles and transport up to 12 combat-loaded troops. With such speed, range and payload, the Army could use the platform to “potentially self deploy [and] not be reliant on the Air Force or the Navy to get some place.”

It also should be able to fly 6,000 feet on a 95-degree Fahrenheit day. Most existing helicopters can only fly 4,000 feet in those temperatures, which restricts operations during the hottest days in critical environments such as the Middle East and North Africa, Mangum said.

The medium-lift aircraft, which is first in line to be developed, will take the place of the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk. Army officials have said building the medium-lift first will allow it to replace 80 percent of its rotorcraft.

This variant will be much heavier at about 30,000 pounds than a Black Hawk at 22,000 pounds. “If you talk about a medium aircraft today, you’re talking about a Black Hawk, an Apache, a Huey. … Those, by weight category, would actually almost be light aircraft in the next generation of aircraft by the Army,” said a senior industry official who asked not to be named.

“You’re really starting to stretch the capabilities of what we’re currently doing today and what we’re capable of doing tomorrow,” the official said. “So if there’s anybody who walks in who says the JMR design points are so easy that we’ve already got that developed, I’m proud of them because ... from my personal knowledge of all of these different companies and things that they’re doing, we’re all going to stretch to meet those goals.”

The makers of the Apache and Black Hawk — Boeing and Sikorsky, respectively — are teaming up to build a demonstrator based on Sikorsky’s X2.

The X2 — a compound helicopter with coaxial rotors and a pusher-propeller at the rear — has flown at speeds of up to 250 knots in level flight. Sikorsky developed the demonstrator by using internal research-and-development funds.

It was eventually developed into the S-97 Raider, Sikorsky’s entry for the ongoing armed aerial scout competition to replace the Kiowa Warrior. The earliest the company will have a Raider prototype is 2014.

For its entry, Sikorsky will design the airframe and Boeing will develop its mission systems.
 “By leveraging our proven design, we can offer the Army reduced risk, a 100-knot improvement in speed, a 60 percent improvement in combat radius, and 50 percent better high-hot hover performance,” Samir Mehta, Sikorsky Military Systems president, said in a statement.

Bell Helicopter will put forward a third-generation tiltrotor aircraft for the demonstrator, company officials announced at the Heli-Expo trade show held this March in Las Vegas. It plans to reveal a new design in April at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual expo in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Current generation tiltrotors are combat-proven, flying twice as fast at twice the range of conventional helicopters,” said Bell spokesman Greg Hubbard. “The advantages of speed and range of a tiltrotor cannot be matched by any other rotorcraft technology.” 

AVX also submitted a proposal for a demonstrator with coaxial rotors and twin ducted fans that provide better steering and some additional forward power, said spokesman Mike Cox.  A relative newcomer to the rotorcraft industry, the Fort Worth, Tex.-based company was founded in 2005. Since then, AVX has picked up a $4 million contract from the Army to conduct a study on the joint multi-role helicopter concept but hasn’t yet produced a prototype based on its designs.

EADS also put forward a response for the announcement, said communications director James Darcy, who declined to provide additional information.

It is expected the company will propose a design that is based on Eurocopter’s X3 demonstrator. The X3, a compound helicopter with a five-bladed top rotor and two short wings fitted with propellers, has flown at a top speed of 232 knots.

The Army is calling for a demonstrator that looks “similar to X2, X3 technology between Sikorsky and us, but it’s not the same,” Mundt said. “Whatever they see in terms of technology at ‘17 and ‘19, it is going to look a whole lot different when we get down to” designing the aircraft.

The Army isn’t the only defense organization looking for improvements in rotorcraft. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a new program that is trying to push the capabilities of vertical take-off and landing aircraft to their outermost limits.

It wants a demonstrator that can fly at least 300 knots, that has better hover and cruise efficiency, and that can carry more fuel, crew and payload, according to a broad area announcement released in February.  Ground and flight testing for the aircraft, called the VTOL X-Plane, will take place after only 40 months.

DARPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The difference between the two demonstrators is that DARPA is looking for what’s possible while the Army wants to see more proven technologies, Mundt said. Ultimately, Mundt believes results from both the joint multi-role and VTOL X-Plane demonstrators may help to form the “long-term solution” of future vertical lift.

Correction: This article originally stated an incorrect location for the Army Aviation Association of America’s Annual Professional Forum and Exposition. The event is held in Fort Worth, Texas.

Photo Credit: Avx

Topics: Aviation, Science and Engineering Technology

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