By S.L. Fuller | December 28, 2017
It was an exciting year in military aviation, as research projects reached new milestones and forces geared up to procure new airframes. While initiatives for “new and improved” technology usually focus on upgrades to preexisting aircraft, 2017 was headlined by developing models. Read these and more in R&WI's January 2018 issue.
A hot topic for R&WI readers this year was the U.S. Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. The narrative in 2017 followed, for the most part, Bell Helicopter and its V-280 Valor tiltrotor. Though the program calls for technology demonstrators, the manufacturer finished building in September what it proudly calls a “prototype,” ahead of the Army’s request for one and ahead of the other FVL participant — a Sikorsky-Boeing team’s SB>1 Defiant.
The V-280 finally took its long-awaited first flight mid-December, which allowed Bell to keep its promise that it would happen before the end of the year. Meeting several milestones in 2017, the V-280 achieved controlled conversion from 95- to 75-deg pylon and back in November. This was announced a month after the prototype reached 100% rotor rpm.
Just because Sikorsky didn’t finish building an FVL prototype doesn’t mean it wasn’t busy reaching other milestones. It’s VH-92A Presidential Helicopter Replacement Program aircraft made its first flight, announced in August. With the flight completed, the manufacturer was able to begin full aircraft system qualification in a flight test program. The VH-92A is expected to enter service in 2020.
Sikorsky’s HH-60W Pave Hawk replacement aircraft, the Combat Rescue Helicopter, reached a milestone in October. Having completed a program training systems critical design review, the aircraft could enter assembly, test and evaluation. The Combat Rescue Helicopter is scheduled to fly for the first time in late 2018.
Perhaps the most excitement surrounding Sikorsky military aircraft (besides the government shelling out billions for Black Hawk work) was aimed at the CH-53K King Stallion in 2017. The U.S. Department of Defense gave the OK for low-rate initial production, after four test aircraft accumulated more than 430 hours in flight tests at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility. This has the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) spending almost $304 million on two production CH-53Ks that are to be delivered in 2020. Low-rate initial production also meant GE Aviation received an award of its own. Worth more than $140 million, a contract allowed the company to start low-rate initial production of 22 T480-GE-400 engines.
(GE Aviation in 2017 also completed the first full-level testing of its powerplant design under the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE) initiate. The program, which calls for development of a 5,000- to 10,000-shaft-horsepower turboshaft, could power FVL aircraft, or be incorporated into new engines. The second full engine is set to begin testing in early 2018.)
As for the King Stallion, news reports said the CH-53K has been approved to make its international debut in 2018, flying at the Berlin air show in April. It has already flown potential international clients. In November, the CH-53K gave a ride to a commander of the Israeli Air Force at Navair’s Patuxent River, Maryland, facility. Congress had previously targeted Israel for a potential King Stallion foreign military sale.
Boeing was busy in 2017 with another teammate besides Sikorsky: Leonardo Helicopters. The team entered the MH-139 in the U.S. Air Force’s competition to replace its fleet of aged Bell UH-1Ns. When the deadline for bids passed, there were three notable aircraft in the running, and the other two were UH-60s. Sikorsky bid its HH-60U Black Hawk — which the Air Force originally said it wanted before Congress forced it out of a sole-source solicitation — and Sierra Nevada Corp. bid its “Force Hawk,” which is a customized UH-60L. The U.S. Air Force is expected to award this contract in the third quarter of fiscal year 2018.
As mentioned before, the U.S. Defense Department did spend parts of 2017 awarding Sikorsky potentially billions of dollars in Black Hawk-related contracts. The U.S. Army in August said it wanted to add another 114 Black Hawks to a five-year, $3.8 billion deal it signed with the manufacturer in the previous month. Those aircraft would be in addition to a deal worth up to $5.2 billion the company signed with Sikorsky June 30 (that deal included foreign military sales deals). The manufacturer was already contracted to deliver its new UH-60Ms and HH-60Ms under a $3.8 billion contract, with options for additional 103 aircraft, potentially adding $1.4 billion more to the deal. The Pentagon will decide production quantities on a year-to-year basis, with the first deliveries to begin in October and continue through 2022.
MD Helicopters Inc. inked itself a deal from the U.S. Army for U.S. and Partner Nation Army Aviation Forces that could be worth nearly $1.4 billion. A five-year contract, the deal initially has MD handing over 30 new MD 530F Cayuse Warriors for the Afghan Air Force. This is worth $176.6 million. As a whole, the contract covers an estimated 150 MD 530s, as well as required production services.
Despite activity around new models, military forces are definitely still interested in modernizing older aircraft. The U.S. Marine Corps started fielding modernized Bell H-1s in the fourth quarter of 2017 under the H-1 upgrade program.
Northrop Grumman said its mission computers were installed on the UH-1Y and AH-1Z. The effort aims to replace UH-1Ns and AH-1Ws with upgraded aircraft, improving capability, commonality, reliability and maintainability. The Tech Refresh Mission Computer is now in full-rate production.
Another aircraft fleet in need of improved commonality, reliability and maintainability is the Marine Corps’ Bell-Boeing V-22. Although the manufacturers were able to celebrate the global fleet surpassing 400,000 flight hours in 2017, the military is dealing with fleet readiness. In February, the military said it was dealing with 77 different MV-22 variants, which, among other items, increases maintenance complexity. This point was reaffirmed at the beginning of November when an official noted that ready basic aircraft (RBA) rates for the MV-22 were currently at 48%. To combat that figure, the Marine Corps launched the Common Configuration Reliability and Maintainability Initiative (CCRaM). This involves the reconfiguring the aircraft to a common variant by the Marine Corps and the manufacturers. Currently, a seven-year, multi-year procurement contract for V-22 allows the service to capitalize on savings and support the CCRaM initiative.
For Northrop Grumman, manned/unmanned teaming was a reality in 2017. The U.S. Navy’s Fire Scout program, which consists of the MQ-8B and MQ-8C, completed several successful demonstrations and tests. During testing in May, a two-part demonstration with two radar-equipped MQ-8Bs proved controls could be handed off from one mission control system to another during operations between Naval Base Ventura County, California, and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island, California. The demo concluded with Fire Scout providing manned/unmanned teaming laser-designation for a Sikorsky MH-60S Hellfire missile shot.
China, India, Germany and Russia, among others, were preparing for new aircraft in 2017. While some countries were buying airframes from other countries, some were celebrating their own domestic models reaching significant milestones.
News reports said in May that China’s Z-19E attack helicopter, produced by Aviation Industry Corp. of China Harbin Aircraft Industry, took its first flight. This brought the company one step closer to bringing it to the international market, as reports have said it is specifically designed to meet foreign military requirements.
In August, India’s defense ministry cleared Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) to begin initial production of the light combat helicopter based on its Dhruv. India's Defense Acquisition Council previously had approved the 29-billion-rupee ($437.5-million) procurement of 15 “limited series production” aircraft, and its Center for Military Airworthiness and Certification had signed off on HAL’s design, which is derived from the Advanced Light Helicopter (or Dhruv). The country's army reportedly has committed to acquiring 114 of the aircraft, and the air force another 65. (India also plans to acquire Boeing-designed AH-64E Apaches starting next year.)
That same month, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract with state-owned Russian Helicopters to develop a new, high-speed combat helicopter. The contract covers the determination of technical appearance of the helicopter. At the end of the two-year contract, the appearance for the new combat helicopter should be determined, and the experimental construction tasks should be formed.
Russian Helicopters also produced the first batch of Mi-28UBs — the new version of the Mi-28N Night Hunter. The main difference in the new version is that the Mi-28UB has a dual-control system. It can be piloted from the pilot-in-command cockpit, or the pilot-operator. Ergonomics have also been improved, with new armchair designs. The avionics have also been improved. It can be used to support ground forces and anti-tank defense.
Back in India in November, new reports said the country’s Defense Acquisition Council approved funding for the purchase of 111 utility rotorcraft. This followed reports that the defense ministry wanted manufacturers to submit proposals to supply the navy with 123 multi-role/anti-submarine warfare helicopters and 111 light, armed utility rotorcraft. The acquisition council reportedly approved more than $3 billion in funding.
In Italy, the country’s first domestically assembled Lockheed Martin F-35B took its first flight. At the end of October, the aircraft successfully operated in short-take-off-and-vertical-landing mods for the first time during its third and final acceptance flight. Early next year, an Italian pilot is scheduled to fly the country’s first F-35B to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. While there, the aircraft would undergo required electromagnetic environmental effects certification.
The German Navy is awaiting deliveries of augmented NHIndustries NH90 — NH90 Sea Lions. Although Airbus called the program’s timeline “demanding,” the second Sea Lion prototype made its first flight at the end of November, which keeps the program on track. Airbus was then able to enter a development testing phase, planning to focus on avionics over coming months. Efforts to qualify the delivery configuration are slated to start next year, once additional modifications have been made to the prototype.