Aviation Giants Enter Final Stretch to Replace Black Hawk
Bell Textron, Boeing-Sikorsky photos
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the Army prepares to decide on a replacement for the venerable but aging Black Hawk, competitors are putting the finishing touches on their offerings.
The service is expected to make a decision on its future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA, program this fall, a decision so imminent that the Army has entered a “quiet period” on the competition.
Future Vertical Lift — which includes FLRAA and the service’s future scout helicopter — is one of the Army’s top three major modernization priorities as the service prepares for great power competition with China and Russia. The first Army unit is slated to be equipped with FLRAA by fiscal year 2030.
The rapidly approaching contract decision doesn’t mean that both teams haven’t been busy. Executives at opposing aerospace teams Boeing-Sikorsky and Bell Textron said they are using the coming months to lower risk for their platforms through additional testing and qualifications and digital manufacturing efforts.
Each team has developed a platform radically different from the Black Hawk, which dates to the 1970s.
One Boeing and one Sikorsky pilot flew the Defiant X — the team’s prototype based on the Sikorsky X2 experimental coaxial twin-rotor helicopter — 700 nautical miles from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Nashville for the Army Aviation Association of America summit.
While it was a risk to make the trip using the prototype, the confidence the test pilots had in the platform convinced executives to get it airborne, said Paul Lemmo, president of Sikorsky, during a press briefing leading up to the summit.
“We had our engineering and safety teams take a very deep look at sending it … but the test pilots were confident every step of the way and, really, that’s what helped us make the decision,” he said.
While the flight itself was risky, he noted other risk reduction techniques the engineering team uses, such as evaluations of the platform and design through a propulsion test bed.
Until the competition decision, Boeing and Sikorsky will continue to fly the Defiant X and run tests that “expand the flight envelope,” said Lemmo. Sikorsky and Boeing have already demonstrated the requirements for the Army’s joint multi-role demonstration contract, which the companies were awarded in 2020, he noted. The Army awarded the contracts to the companies to develop a prototype for the competition, and both companies entered the second phase of the program in March last year.
“So anything we do now is really just additional testing that we want to do,” he said.
While Bell’s V-280 Valor prototype — a tiltrotor based on the V-22 Osprey designed by Bell — isn’t seeing as much flying time, the company is working just as hard to reduce risk for the program, Frank Lazarra, director of advanced vertical lift, said on the sidelines of the Army aviation summit.
After the prototype aircraft stopped flying, Bell’s engineering team removed gearboxes and performed inspections and engineering validations with “very positive results,” he said.
“There is still the give and take or the back and forth between us and our government teammates on requirements or the possibilities for the aircraft,” he said.
Bell wants to show off how quickly it can manufacture parts once the program starts, Lazarra said. The company opened its Manufacturing Technology Center last year to reduce cycle times across its enterprise. Shortening production time for the V-280 is one of its primary focuses, said Gerard Nanni, manager of manufacturing innovation.
For example, one shaft used on the tilt rotor has a lead time of 330 days, but the center has been able to cut it down to 16 hours, Nanni explained. This makes the entire enterprise less risky for the Army, he said.
“We’re able to rapidly incorporate changes because of our shortened standard time and manufacturing,” he said.
Developing training and system integration options for the platform will be another focus of Bell’s time leading up to a contract award.
Though the Sikorsky-Boeing team has taken to the air to make its case to the Army, Lazarra pointed out that Bell’s tilt-rotor design has made similar length flights in the past. For example, the V-280 flew from Amarillo, Texas, to Fort Worth, about 370 miles nonstop. The V-280 aircraft did not have to stop for fuel during that trip, unlike the Defiant X flight, which flew twice the distance and had to refuel twice, Lazarra said.
At the same time, competitors are battling to prove the mettle of their FLRAA engines. Honeywell’s HTS7500 turboshaft engine will power the Defiant X, Boeing and Sikorsky announced in March.
The turboshaft engine is undergoing tests for integration into the Defiant X and other qualification testing this year. One example of testing is measuring how well it holds up to pressure, John Russo, vice president general manager for Honeywell Aerospace military turboshaft engine product line, said at a company event in April.
Without using “exotic” materials such as ceramic coatings, the engine can maintain low turbine temperatures “for reliability, for maintainability as well as risk reduction,” he said. He explained sticking with currently used coatings keeps the turbine from melting down without the risk of less proven technology.
Lazarra noted the Rolls Royce AE 1107F engine on the V-280 results in a more efficient platform than the Bell V-22, which is powered by a Rolls-Royce T406.
While not much is known about the engine that Rolls Royce announced in 2020, Director of Defense Programs at Rolls Royce Candice Bineyard said it is already in production.
Rolls Royce has invested $600 million for upgrades to facilities and manufacturing capabilities. The company has “really put ourselves in a position to deliver,” she said.
Meanwhile, progress on the Army’s future attack reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA, is hinged on its engine development. The Army hopes to field its future scout helicopter in 2028, but the industry competitors say they are waiting for the Army and its industry partner General Electric to wrap up its modernized turbine engine design before their efforts can fully kick off. The Army awarded General Electric a $517 million contract to replace the GE T700 engine with a T901 engine through a program called the Improved Turbine Engine Program, according to the company.
For example, Bell’s 360 Invictus prototype is about 85 percent complete and will reach 90 percent completion in May or June, said Chris Gehler, the vice president and program director for the Invictus program.
“We’re going to do everything we can without the engine … but once we have the engine then we’ll do the full in the loop testing of everything,” he said on the sidelines of the Army aviation conference.
General Electric provided a 3D-printed version of the T901 to work with until the finished product is ready for first flight in November, said Brig. Gen. Robert Barrie, Army program executive officer for aviation. Despite testing delays resulting from COVID-19, Barrie added he is confident in GE’s ability to deliver by November and then reach first flight in the third quarter of 2023.
“There is a pathway for them to fly in ‘23,” Barrie said. “There’s some risk associated with that, but it’s all hands on deck to manage and mitigate those risks.”
The engine reached “light off” — the first time fuel is ignited in the engine — in March, a “significant” milestone, Barrie added.
Gehler said Bell’s engineering team is running checks on “electronics aspects” and the aircraft’s hydraulics. The test fit of the 3D-printed engine with the Invictus air frame was successful, he noted.
Bell has brought the price of Invictus “well below” the $30 million average cost per platform required by the Army, according to Gehler. He said the platform’s smaller size and weight have been instrumental in keeping costs low.
The Raider X — Sikorsky-Boeing’s FARA offering — is at a similar completion rate as its rival for the initial design — about 85 percent, said Jay Macklin, Sikorsky’s business development director for future vertical lift.
While waiting for the engine, the engineering team wants to decrease overall risk to the program, Macklin noted. This includes building a second fuselage for the prototype.
“The reason we did that is that’s now being integrated in our structural test program [and] will be used to validate the flight and ground loads capability in the airframe,” he said.
The second fuselage gives Sikorsky the option to build a second competitive prototype, but “we’ll kind of make those decisions as we go down,” Macklin said. The company will also give the Army data from tests on the S-97 Raider, the platform Raider X is based on, he noted.
“As all programs move through their process and things move all around, we feel like this is the best way to reduce risk to provide an absolutely low risk solution for that increment 1 design,” he said.
For the upcoming fiscal year, the Army is not slowing down on its investment in future vertical lift. Service officials told reporters the Army is requesting $1.5 billion for its future vertical lift program, nearly identical to last year’s budget request.
The 2023 budget request includes $468.7 million for FARA’s hardware and software development, component subsystem assembly, integration and testing as well as software and hardware in the loop efforts, said Brig. Gen. Michael McCurry at a roundtable in March after the budget request was released.
He added that the $693.6 million request for FLRAA would go toward finishing preliminary design efforts, weapon systems and virtual prototyping. Later in fiscal year 2023, the Army would use the funding to look for weapons system contract options, he said.
The future vertical lift portfolio isn’t going to change the “core competencies” of aviation, but how the Army fights will shift, said Maj. Gen. David Francis at a panel during the Army aviation summit.
“The geometry of the battlefield, the options available to maneuver commanders, is going to significantly change, and we’re going to be able to provide much more capability and many more options to our maneuver commanders based on the capability that future vertical lift is going to provide,” he said.