The V-280 Valor prototype on the flight line at Bell's Amarillo, Texas, manufacturing facility.
Call it a prototype or an experimental aircraft, but with the V-280 Valor, Bell is offering the U.S. Army a vertical-lift platform it can take almost directly into production, according to company officials.
“This is meant to be a production aircraft,” Scott Drennan, director of innovation at Bell, said Monday at the annual expo of the American Institute of Aerospace and Aeronautics in Atlanta. “Call it a prototype, a demonstrator, a rapid development aircraft, let’s say — because it’s a contentious definition — it’s there to squeeze the production lifecycle.”
The V-280 operational prototype that has flown more than 40 hours in the six months since its first flight in December, was built in the same Amarillo, Texas, factory as the V-22. During a recent tour of the factory, the area where it was built was visible, though cordoned off by opaque green fencing to protect Bell’s secrets, directly adjacent where Osprey wings are fabricated.
Though often referred to as revolutionary, the V-280 is better described as a generational improvement on the V-22, Drennan said. While not identical in any sense, the V-280 was designed and built next to its technological ancestor with eventual production in mind, he said.
“It was done in a system, let’s not call it completely outside, but marginally outside our production, so that we knew we could relate it somehow but not slow ourselves down and then aimed at, ultimately, a vehicle that wanted to go into production,” he said. “Different choices had to be made about tooling and engineering design practices.”
Both the UH-1Y and AH-1Z, the most-advanced models of the Huey and Cobra, respectively, also are built at the Amarillo facility. The U.S. Marine Corps is curtailing procurement of both aircraft as it fields both programs of record. The service also is nearing the end of V-22 production, so there is room in Amarillo to build a new aircraft — or there soon will be.
Keith Flail, Bell’s VP of advanced tiltrotor systems, said the company designed the aircraft from the start as a production-representative aircraft the Army could take directly into engineering and manufacturing development, the acquisition phase just before production. The program has been focused on “burning down risk and informing requirements” for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift family of aircraft, Flail told R&WI during a flightline interview June 18 following the first public demonstration of the aircraft in flight.
FVL is the third in a prioritized list of six Army modernization priorities. That program itself is divided into six capability sets. V-280 is designed for the third, a utility variant that was initially “FVL Medium.” Army documents lay out the requirements for Capability Set 3 as cruising at between 230 and 310 kt with a combat radius between 229 and 450 nm, an internal payload of between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds and external carrying capacity of 6,000 to 8,000 pounds.
“Given that large set of capabilities they are looking at for modernization, our position is to posture this asset so that they can enter deeper into the acquisition process to acquire capability,” Flail said. “We see this as a leading candidate because you have to start with something for Army modernization, and I’d ask you what’s more ready to go into the acquisition process than your Future Vertical Lift Cap Set 3 aircraft?”
V-280 already has flown at 195 kt, and Bell advertises an eventual “dash speed” of greater than 280 kt. The company also estimates a combat radius of more than 229 nm. All of its critical technologies are at or above technology readiness level six, which is required for a milestone B decision to enter engineering and manufacturing development (EMD), Flail said.
“That’s the Army’s decision, but our goal all along has been to posture them so they can go into milestone B and they can enter into EMD, should they choose to do so,” Flail said.