Boeing-Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter Move Forward in Joint Multi-Role Helicopter Program

By Valerie Insinna

The Army has selected Bell Helicopter and a Boeing-Sikorsky team to produce and fly rotorcraft in 2017 for its joint multi-role technical demonstrator program, giving these companies a leg up in developing the service’s next-generation fleet.

The JMR program is the Army’s science and technology effort for the future vertical lift program of record — the intended procurement vehicle to field speedy, long-range successors to the Army’s helicopter fleets. The medium variant of FVL, scheduled for initial operating capability in the mid 2030s, would replace Boeing’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter.

Rotorcraft heavyweights Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky came in on top of two smaller companies, AVX Aircraft Co. and Karem Aircraft, which were also vying for a chance to build demonstrators. Both companies — as well as other helicopter manufacturers such as Airbus and AgustaWestland — could come back to the table when the FVL program begins.

Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor, named after its 280-knot top speed, can fly at double the speed and has twice the range of any of the Army’s current helicopters.

“The aircraft can provide the military with unmatched range, speed and payload capabilities, and is designed with operational agility in mind to provide our soldiers transformational reach and revolutionary capability on the battlefield,” Keith Flail, program director for the Bell V-280 Valor, said in a statement. “We remain focused on providing exceptional capabilities and flexibility in an advanced aircraft with  reduced weight, complexity and cost.”

Boeing-Sikorsky’s helicopter, called the SB>1 Defiant, features a coaxial, counter-rotating rigid main rotor blades on top, and a pusher propeller in the rear that allows the aircraft to accelerate and decelerate. The aircraft is based on Sikorsky’s X-2 demonstrator.

“As the original equipment manufacturers for both the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, we bring tremendous technological breadth and depth to the customer,” said Shelly Lavender, president of Boeing Military Aircraft. "I believe our technical capabilities and experience in development and flight testing of complex rotorcraft systems were a key factor in the customer’s decision.”

Dan Bailey, the Army’s JMR program manager, has said the service could only afford to take two competitors to flight demonstrations, but said the other companies could still have a future role.

It was not immediately clear whether AVX or Karem would have further involvement in developing JMR technologies. AVX Aircraft proposed a coaxial design while Karem offered a tiltrotor, but neither manufacturer has ever produced an operational helicopter.

AVX spokesman Mike Cox said, “We’re still in negotiations with the Army … about doing some level of work.”

Karem Aircraft’s program manager did not immediately return a request for comment.

It’s no surprise that the Army chose Boeing-Sikorsky and Bell to move forward, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. All three companies invested a lot of money into their designs and have extensive experience selling rotorcraft to the Army.

“It’s certainly safer to go with the incumbents just because they’re the ones that are going to be in business,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the other guys don’t have innovative ideas and designs, but in terms of safety and the industrial base, it was pretty clear that the two incumbents had a strong advantage.”

However, Aboulafia is skeptical that the JMR and FVL efforts will result in procurement of new helicopters. Both programs may produce useful new technologies, but it may take the Army decades to incorporate any revolutionary changes in rotorcraft design, he said.

“Both of these two contenders have the greatest experience in building and designing. Now, there’s two big issues," he said. "Are we ready to decide who is offering the future optimal rotorcraft configuration, or is it going to take another couple decades? Are we ready to say in the JMR timeframe what is the ideal shape of the future rotorcraft?"

The other issue is that even if the Army does choose a design, it’s “highly uncertain, indeed unlikely” that it will pay a premium for the extended speed and range sought after in the FVL program, he said.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Science and Engineering Technology

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