Industry Picking Up Steam Designing New Helicopters

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
S-97 Raider

Art: Lockheed Martin / Sikorsky

An Army effort to demonstrate cutting-edge helicopter designs is gathering momentum as industry moves forward with the development of new aircraft.

The service is leading a project known as the joint multi-role technology demonstrator, which will serve as a precursor to the Army’s eventual future vertical lift program. FVL is intended to replace thousands of aging legacy helicopters with a new, advanced family of systems — including light through ultra-heavy variants — across the services in the late 2020s and 2030s.

The companies participating in the technology demonstrator program — Bell Helicopter and a Sikorsky-Boeing team — are plowing forward.

Bell’s V-280 Valor, which takes technology from the company’s V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, recently flew for the first time at the company’s Amarillo, Texas, facility in December.

The inaugural flight — during which the aircraft hovered for several minutes — was considered a success, said Chris Gehler, Bell’s program manager for the V-280.
“It’s a huge milestone,” he told National Defense. “Bell is providing the Army leadership and DoD leadership confidence that there is definitely a viable technology that can meet the future vertical lift requirements.”

A data issue with the aircraft’s telemetry system caused Bell to end the test earlier than intended, he noted.

“We saw some data come in that caused one of our engineers to say, ‘Knock it off,’ and we set the aircraft down to check out the data and it turns out that it was not an issue,” he said.

By the time the aircraft was prepared to fly again, the winds in Amarillo had picked up — making flight unwise, he noted.

Bell was able to glean information about aircraft loads through the hover test, Gehler said.
“We’re just really validating a lot of the metrics that we have established to make sure that our models are correct,” he added.

Nonetheless, Bell plans to methodically progress up to high-speed testing and then transitioning to forward flight. That will likely happen by the end of 2018.

The company is “not trying to set arbitrary dates or anything like that, but certainly we have got a schedule,” Gehler said. “We would like to see all of the key performance parameters tested out this year.”

Bell expects the Army will want to “shake out” the aircraft in the summer and that it could be used for additional testing while being equipped with varying mission systems, he said.

Gehler sees future vertical lift as a key program for the Army and one that the service hopes to fast track.

An analysis of alternatives for future vertical lift is already underway, according to a spokesperson from the Army futures command task force. That is expected to conclude in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019.

Additionally, the service is looking at ways to speed up procurement.

“The Army is considering opportunities to accelerate the program and the opportunities will be assessed as the joint multi-role technology demonstration flight tests are conducted and … [a] draft capabilities development document further matures,” she said in an email.

At the same time, however, budget uncertainty is having an effect on the program. Continuing resolutions in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 have increased schedule risk, she noted.

A Sikorsky-Boeing team is also participating in the joint multi-role demonstrator effort.
The companies are offering the SB-1 Defiant, which is based on Sikorsky’s X2 technology that replaces the single main rotor on a traditional helicopter with a coaxial rotor, and a pusher-propeller that replaces a traditional tail rotor, said Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations.

“Because of the coaxial rotor design, you don’t have to counter the torque of the main rotor with the tail rotor,” he said. “The advantage of this configuration is significantly higher speeds than the legacy platforms.”

The team plans for the aircraft to fly at 250 knots, he added.


V-280 Valor (Bell)

Rich Koucheravy, business development director for future vertical lift at Sikorsky, said the Defiant’s fuselage has been at the company’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility for nearly a year.

“The aircraft is mostly constructed,” he added. “We have mostly completed the build on the aircraft, minus some of the power-train components.”

Over the past year the team has finished work on the engines, auxiliary power unit, electrical system and hydraulics system, and has connected the electrical power to the cockpit and avionics. It has also done substantial work with the aircraft’s fly-by-wire software, he noted.

However, despite original plans for first flight to occur in 2017, the Sikorsky-Boeing team now plans to fly the aircraft sometime in 2018, Koucheravy said.

“We have really scrutinized every bit of this program to see what we can do to reduce schedule and to pull first flight to the left,” he said. “We still believe we are on track to fly in 2018 but we are not going to rush to fly before we’re ready.”

Randy Rotte, business development director for FVL at Boeing, said the companies have run into challenges as they have constructed the blades.

“We’re building them using tools that we already had because you don’t necessarily invest a tremendous amount in developing new tools for something that you’re only building a prototype of as you would for a production program,” he said. Therefore, the tools are not being optimized in the same way they normally would be. “We’ve figured out ways to overcome those challenges but that all takes time,” he added.

Koucheravy noted the companies are employing advanced technologies for the aircraft and with that often come delays.

“The compound coaxial offset system requires us to have a fully rigid rotor system,” he said. “There are not any aircraft currently flying in the DoD inventory that have fully rigid rotor blades, and they present some manufacturing challenges.”

Despite the delays, it is important for the team to get the technology complete before flight trials start, he said.

“Certainly the government has said openly … [that] they would have liked us to have flown sooner, but what’s important is that when we get in the air and when we begin testing this aircraft that the test flight program goes off safely,” Koucheravy said.

Both Rotte and Koucheravy said they did not believe the schedule delays would have a negative effect on the team during a future vertical lift competition, or put Bell in a more advantageous position.

“We compliment our Bell brethren who have got their aircraft flying. I think that’s a notable accomplishment. I wouldn’t say it concerns us,” Rotte said. “Our aircraft is on a different schedule. It’s a different set of technologies and will provide a different set of capabilities.”

While Sikorsky-Boeing plan to eventually offer the Defiant as a medium-size variant for the future vertical lift program, Sikorsky is eyeing its Raider for the light version of the system, Van Buiten said.

The S-97 Raider — which also employs the company’s X2 technology — has been in development for years and had its first flight in 2015.

“Sikorsky decided about five or six years ago to pursue both [variants] and prepare for both,” Van Buiten said. “Our FVL light work on Raider pushes lessons learned into the Defiant build.”

Raider is in its 19th flight hour and the company has filled out the system’s flight envelope to 150 knots. Through iterative testing, Sikorsky is working its way up to a flight test where the aircraft reaches 220 knots, he said.

The company has produced two Raider systems. This past summer, the first prototype suffered what has been described by the company as a hard landing, which has since kept it from the skies. Van Buiten said it would be sometime before that system would be ready for flight testing again.

“Requalifying experimental hardware to re-enter the flight test after it went through an event like that can be kind of tricky, so we’re … moving on to aircraft two,” he said.

The second prototype is nearing completion and is slated to begin flight trials in the spring, he said.

Ray Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Connecticut-based market-consulting firm, said because the joint multi-role program is not structured as a competition in a classic sense, it may not matter much that the Valor flew before the Defiant.

The point of the demonstrator is to test new technologies, giving the competitors more flexibility until requirements are firmed up in a formal future vertical lift program of record, he added.

In an October memo released by Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, and Ryan McCarthy, then-acting secretary and current undersecretary of the Army, the two service leaders listed future vertical lift as a top modernization priority.

It is clear that the Army is excited about the efforts, but there is less enthusiasm within the other services, Jaworowski said.

 “The whole idea behind FVL is that it will be a joint program similar to [the F-35] joint strike fighter … in that this will be a solution for all the services,” he said. The Army will not only replace its Apaches and Black Hawks, but the Marines will replace their AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Iroquois helicopters. The Navy will replace its Seahawks.

“The Army is the one service that is the most enthusiastic about it and that’s to be expected,” he said. “They’re the largest operator of helicopters among the three services.”

However, experts and analysts have argued that the reason the F-35 has run into schedule delays and ballooning costs is because it is a joint program. 

“The more you try to please everyone with the design of an aircraft, the less pleased any one of the individual customers” will be, Jaworowski said. The Army has “seen the lessons learned from joint strike fighter and they have those in mind as they continue … down the road with FVL.”

While the Army has named the effort one of its top modernization priorities, industry will have to watch for any signs of problems, he added.

“One sign that FVL might be heading for some trouble, … and by trouble I mean not necessarily termination but perhaps a significant delay, is if you start to see serious talk about block upgrades,” he said. That could prompt the service to buy an AH-64F Apache to succeed that AH-64E rather than invest in a brand new system.

“The Army will tell you right out that they have no plans for an AH-64F, and so that’s a good sign for FVL remaining on the current schedule,” Jaworowski added.


Topics: Air Power

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