As the Pentagon considers the future of military vertical lift, Bell Helicopter is talking with the US services about designing a next-generation tiltrotor solution that could begin low-rate production in the mid-2020s, one company official said.
|Bell Helicopter's V-280 Valor concept|
Bell is partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a rotorcraft flight demonstrator as part of the US Army’s Joint Multi-Role program, which will gauge the art of the possible for the path ahead. The demonstrator program will inform the Army’s Future Vertical Lift effort to buy a new state-of-the-art family of helicopters in the 2030s.
The demonstration effort may have implications beyond the Army. The Pentagon has indicated that FVL may eventually replace the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force military helicopters as well. But for now, Bell is working with the Army and Marine Corps to shorten the time line for fielding the aircraft, the V-280, program manager Chris Gehler told the media on Nov. 16.
“Bell Helicopter is working closely with the Army and the Marine Corps on informing the requirements of FVL, exploring the options for shortening the time required to field this aircraft,” Gehler said. “We’ll work with our primary customers in the Army and Marine Corps to explore different ways to enter into a low rate production by the mid 2020’s. We are in close communication with the DOD to bring the V-280 onboard as soon as possible with limited risk to better take advantage of the industry and DOD investment.”
The Bell-Lockheed team is offering its V-280 Valor tiltrotor, which builds on the technology developed for Bell-Boeing’s V-22. The competing team, made up of Sikorsky Aircraft and Boeing, is working on a coaxial helicopter known as the SB-1 Defiant for the demonstrator effort.
Although the demonstrator prototypes will fly in 2017, the Army is currently not planning a contract award until the late 2020s, Richard Harris, Bell’s vice president for international military business sales, said in an interview with Defense News. But he stressed that company officials believe the Bell-Lockheed team could achieve initial operational capability by 2025.
“The Army and DOD are exploring options for shortening the V-280 development timeframe, given the significant investment by DOD and industry,” Gehler said. “The Army intends to enter a technology maturation and risk review (TMRR) phase around 2020. We feel a case could be made to instead jump ahead to the Engineering Manufacturing and Development (EMD) phase, given the technology readiness levels we will demonstrate. This has the potential to move the entire timeline up, and deliver this leap-ahead capability to the warfighters years earlier.”
Bell’s goal is ultimately to replace all the Pentagon’s helicopters with the V-280, Harris said, touting the plane’s speed and flexibility. The Valor will have twice the speed and range of the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, more than doubling operational reach, according to Bell’s website. The future plane will also outperform the V-22, Harris said, with a combat radius of 1,200 nautical miles compared to the Osprey’s 900 nautical miles.
In one major difference between the two tiltrotors, the Valor’s engines remain in place for transition to forward-flying position, while the rotors and drive shafts tilt, Harris explained. The V-280 will also build on the V-22’s offensive capability. Unlike the Osprey, the Valor will have a forward-firing capability, likely achieved by integrating Hellfire missiles into the plane’s side panels, he said.
While the new aircraft’s cabin will look much like a Black Hawk’s, the advanced glass cockpit uses similar technology to the F-35, Harris said, touting the plane’s fly-by-wire flight control system.
Bell just received the first cabin, and is getting ready to integrate the wings and engine onto the plane, Harris said, adding that “it went together like Lego blocks.”
“When you take a look at the dynamic world that we live in these days and how fast things happen and how far away things happen, a conventional helicopter just does not meet the requirements of all the services,” Harris said. “We are trying to define the standard for what future vertical lift is based upon [Bell’s] legacy and the fact that we are the ones that developed the secret sauce for the V-22.”