The Army is committed to investment and procurement of a Future Vertical Lift, a program to replace UH-60 Blackhawks with new helicopters that can go twice as fast, twice as far, with more agility and flexible payloads.

The two partnerships, Sikorsky-Boeing and Bell Helicopters-led Team Valor, part of the Army and Marine Corps’ Joint Multi-Role (JMR) program awarded contracts for flight demonstrators in December 2016 still both have downsides to overcome for the most-coveted helicopter contract out there.

The Sikorsky-Boeing demonstrator, SB-1 Defiant, is based on X2 technology also available on the Sikorsky attack compound Raider helicopter that the Army procured under the Armed Aerial Scout program.

A model of Defiant on display at AUSA.

But it has faced several delays in the development, specifically on the rotor blade manufacturing for the coaxial design, which has kept it from its first flight for over a year past the originally scheduled date.

Sikorsky-Boeing used an automated fiber placement machine to manufacturer the helicopter’s blades, at the request of the Army, the partners said.

“To set the precedent for the future of being a low-cost aircraft we went right in with an automated approach,” Future Vertical Lift program manager for Boeing Ken Eland said.

It took the first spar two years to build, he said. But for the latest spar, it only took 11 days, emblematic of the long-term efficiency the automation approach could yield for Defiant.

Defiant will be be running on a propulsion system testbed (PSTB), which should show successful system integration of all the different moving pieces—turbines, transmission and rotors—by the end of October with a first flight test slated for the end of the year, Sikorsky business development director for FVL Rich Koucheravy said during a press briefing at AUSA.

Depending on the results of the initial tests, Eland said once the aircraft flies, six months would not be unrealistic to reach speeds above 200 knots. The partners said that the timeline of Milestone A in 2021, Milestone B in 2025 or 2026, and Milestone C in 2030 is still “very executable,” but also caveated that with “revolutionary” systems, “timelines can be a little naive.”

Either way, the company remains confident that Defiant is a good design. Nothing has led them to question the design and nothing says that the helicopter is not scalable (up to 10 percent), if the Army decides it wants something larger or smaller, the team said.

Bell Helicopters and Team Valor’s tilt rotor V-280, on the other hand, underwent its first flight in December 2017 and has logged 65 flight hours and 150 ground test hours, according to Bell’s Government Relations and Business Development Director Rob Freeland, also a retired Marine Colonel who was a supervisor of the FVL program at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

The V-280 is a tilt rotor helicopter based on the Bell-Boeing multi-mission V-22 Osprey that the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force use. While it is a tilt rotor, the engine is fixed, allowing for easy, low-cost maintenance and sustainment, Freeland said.

A video streaming at the Bell exhibit at AUSA shows an impressive flight test, with the helicopter taking off, moving extremely steadily in every direction with a 10 mph crosswind, and landing without issue.

A tilt rotor helicopter is more efficient at flying long distances than a composite helicopter, like Defiant, but also don’t offer the same agility and maneuverability, according to experts.

While the Marine Corps is sold on the use of tilt rotors, the Army is resistant. Fortunately, because the program a joint venture with the Marines, who the Defiant team said has had some direct involvement and hasn’t waxed or waned through the process, Bell may not be out of the game.

“It’s good that we have the Marine Corps and the Army working together on this. The Marine Corps has learned how to use the speed and range of the tilt rotor over for over a decade of operation use on the V-22 and the Marine Corps is porting some of that learning over to the Army,” Freeland told DSJ.

Bell also said it could move at whatever the pace the Army wants, which is an important factor that Army leaders have consistently reiterated about the program.   

“[It’s] Important to understand is that we can take the next steps in this design very quickly and we got a hot team ready to go to do it,” Freeland said, adding that the V-280 will only need “final modifications” based on the specifics of the Army’s needs in terms of configuration, weapons packages, etc.

In the coming months, look to see if Sikorsky-Boeing can overcome its past scheduling delays, hit its next few marks, and prove that the risks are mostly behind them, or if Bell and Team Valor can make any progress on selling the tilt rotor model. Whoever does so will likely come out with the Army’s FVL contract.