Sikorsky’s Comet; Boldly Funding the Future (Full Interview)

By By Andrew Drwiega | August 1, 2011
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Rotor & Wing: There is a widespread international concern today over the direction and pace of rotorcraft development in order to meet future needs. A main focus of concern seems to be the lack of government funding. Sikorsky appears to have created its own solution witnessed by the X2/S-97 development process. This seems to be the first step in developing a capability for the future. I’m also thinking of the potential for scalability—is growth ingrained in the program as well?

Jeff Pino: If someone isn’t willing to pay for development, then we feel that we can gain an advantage by doing it ourselves—and there are a couple of us doing that [meaning Eurocopter’s X³]. Sikorsky has been focused on this for around five years. X2 is a solution to a set of problems. The demonstrations did a little better than we thought, so it made sense to move into a development based on a Request for Proposal that may not exist anymore, but there is a set of requirements that look like a Light Attack/Armed Aerial Scout.

We are learning things with X2 and S-97 that we are backward deploying into products that will generationally look like the current products, but will link that technology back. For example, we are learning a lot about vibration, fly-by-wire and drag reduction on a hub (whether one rotor or two), and electricity usage. We will still have conventional-looking products but they will have tremendous advantage over current capability because we’ve been out on the edge. We are making the leap forward while bringing the technologies back.


Rotor & Wing: So it’s like a comet—you’re getting the benefit from the tail but the technology is still going forward. And it is company funded.

Pino: Exactly. The Raider will fly in three and a half years. We are building two and we are doing something that we couldn’t do if we were developing with the government, in that we have decided that the mission equipment lifecycle is much shorter than that of the aircraft, so we aren’t worrying about mission equipment. We are holding space, weight and power, so when it is time—perhaps 18 months from now—we will start to figure out what mission equipment will be needed because the technology will have changed by then. By then there might be government interest because it is closer to what they want. It’s discovery-driven and at the moment we have a plan.

Carey Bond: We also have some supplier partners who are in this with us—and will have preferred status when it all moves forward.

Pino: So now we have this ‘comet’ streaking out there, and we will take some of that technology, but don’t think we have stopped looking at conventional helicopters. And that is not our only comet either. By the end of the year we will fly a Black Hawk autonomously in the vertical supply mission. And then without any change, put a pilot in there and have them do the exact same mission.

Rotor & Wing: How important was the technology that the Schweizer purchase brought to you? [Note: Sikorsky purchased Schweizer Aircraft in 2004; before that, in 2000, Schweizer received FAA type certification for Model 333 helicopter and Northrop Grumman won a U.S. Navy VTUAV competition using an unmanned derivative of the Model 333—the Fire Scout.]

Pino: To be honest, small—smaller than we had thought. They did not have as much technology as we expected and that was our lack of knowledge on the subject. It turns out that in terms of the Fire Scout, we do very little apart from provide a great vehicle to Northrop Grumman. We have to go out and earn our own credentials—and we are. Let’s think of what we have done: X2, Canadian Maritime, CH-53K and two UH-60L prototypes—all fly-by-wire.

Rotor & Wing: How fundamental are UAS developments to Sikorsky? Do you see a commercial side?

Bond: That gets talked about a lot. I think the technology will get us there. It comes down to how the FAA views the airspace and the ability to avoid an unexpected obstacle—sense and avoid. There may be parts of the world not as frequently traveled, border patrol perhaps, that may lead the charge towards acceptance.

Pino: We don’t think helicopters will play a major role. In a Black Hawk battalion, will there be a need for an unpiloted battalion? Or will one battalion do, as long as the commander has the option to decide whether he sends one, two or no pilots?

Rotor & Wing: So you are watching closely the USMC competition between Kaman’s K-MAX and Boeing’s A160T?

Pino: Yes, but we think we are a step beyond because we will be able to field an optionally manned Black Hawk.

Rotor & Wing: Can you just remind me where Sikorsky is on the UK’s SAR-H program? [Note: SAR-H was the UK government’s competition to award a Private Finance Initiative led-team a contract to provide the UK with SAR helicopters over 25 years.]

Mike Maurer: We were disappointed when things folded. We think what is going to happen is that two requests will come out; an interim program [the Maritime Coastguard Agency contract with CHC Scotia for the provision of four S-92s runs out in 2012] then the main program to extend the service to the other bases to meet the 24-helicopter requirement [providing total UK SAR coverage]. The need has not gone away. We think it will be different to the last bidding process—possibly more of a traditional supplier-service type agreement for a shorter period of time instead of the long one. There is also the potential that the MoD might buy the aircraft themselves and then have a service provider operate their fleet—but there are several different scenarios. What is constant is that the program will go forward as those aircraft [the current RAF/RN S-61 Sea Kings] still need to be replaced. We think that the initial contract will come out in September as the clock is running on the MCA contract, but they are working hard to shore that up. There may be a selection later this year for the intermediate program. There is not a lot of talk about extending the Sea Kings as there were big cost savings based around the original path.

Rotor & Wing: Let’s turn to the existing potential programs in the U.S.—the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS), Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP), and the Joint Multi Role (JMR).

Maurer: In terms of the CVLSP, the U.S. Air Force is coming at this in different ways. To replace their current fleet, which is roughly 200 aircraft, there are three different programs. One is not a competition, the Operational Loss Replacement (OLR), and that is for the Pave Hawks that are out there now. We are delivering some of those this year—eventually a number between 16 and 24. The mission that was CSAR and is now called Recap [Recapitalization of the HH-60G with a newer model aircraft] is going to come next year, it appears. The one now is the CVLSP requirement—helicopters to protect the mission sites from terrorist threats, and then the second role is the special mission evacuation of VIPs, politicians for the continuation of government. We expect to see a Request for Proposal sometime this fall, which will make it a year ahead of Recap. We think that the Black Hawk platforms are a no-brainer for their requirement. So the total will be around 93 helicopters for CVLSP and 110 for Recap—then the operational loss replacement.

Pino: JMR is interesting. The ability to set and get it honestly to be a ‘joint’ program poses a huge question with its own challenges. What the Army calls the ‘medium,’ the Navy can’t fly. But let’s assume there is a JMR. What we’ve been offering is a view of the world that says the X2-type technology is a good fit for light and very light, and what they think is medium but may need to be scaled down a bit. Once you scale up to heavy it will probably look like a CH-53K. Yes, we always see the challenge in terms of what we have but have not yet seen the requirements gelling process—will it be sorted out for 2025, 2030, 2035 or even 2040?

Rotor & Wing: So how far is the S-97 Raider scalable?

Pino: We are scalable from Raider size to Black Hawk++ size. We are convinced that the rotor and dynamic system can be used for dedicated attack. When you get up to those higher, heavier classes do they really want the distances and payload they are talking about? If so then they are probably getting into fixed-wing supported solutions, which aren’t on our drawing board. Our pre-design team has checked the affordability of the very heavy and we are talking monies we’ve never talked about before for transport aircraft, much less vertical. So maybe they need changes to short-take-off and landing, but there needs to be a lot more group thinking on what they are really looking for. We are going out on our own dime but not past the 30,000-lb-plus point—after that it gets really expensive.

Rotor & Wing: So where else are you looking in terms of Science and Technology (S&T)?

Bond: We have to go after noise and fuel efficiency—and speed. As an industry rather than point at everyone else and get them to change their way of thinking, we need to adapt our technologies to the world we are dealing with. If you get there then the markets will open up.

Rotor & Wing: How does a company respond to the suggestion that the world’s economy is moving towards the east?

Bond: There are portions of the world that still have not developed, whether eastern Europe, China or parts of Africa. As the economic wealth of the world moves we are trying to position ourselves to take a share of the worldwide commercial growth.

Pino: We don’t talk enough about the fact that China builds a major component for all of our major commercial helicopters—the tail of the S-92, they now build a full fuselage for the S-76 and virtually all of our components for the S-300 helicopter. You have to start by having a presence in a country [Shanghai Sikorsky and Shanghai Little Eagle in China are both subsidiaries of Sikorsky]. Now we are in discussions with AVIC II (the Chinese state owned organization) about taking those bases and expanding them for use in our worldwide supply chain and in terms of what they do in supporting [China’s] own ambitions—as there is going to be a big market. In India too, we moved the S-92 cabin production there from Japan. We have a joint venture with Tata Industries that builds many aviation components.

Bond: We have a multiple local strategies in certain key countries—Turkey, Brazil, South Arabia, Mexico, Japan. These are not just sales opportunities, as we want to be present as part of the local industry even in the absence of any particular competition.

Pino: In the UAE we will have a military depot with the same in Saudi Arabia, but in Colombia we went in with a training centre for Latin America. In Turkey it was for the production of the Black Hawk and the expansion of an existing joint venture.

Rotor & Wing: What does the Australian decision to buy the MH-60R Seahawk really mean to Sikorsky?

Maurer: This is a very good deal. They took time to come to the decision and it is an extremely complicated mission. History says it can be a risky procurement. Team Romeo offers a capable and proven aircraft which is interoperable with the U.S. Navy. There are other countries looking at naval requirements. If you look at the big decisions over the last few years, this is one, but Turkey has selected us, Brazil too and Singapore. Canada with the MHP, which is the most advanced of all, and India has down-selected us to be one of two. History is filled with failed maritime programs but if you look at all the investment that the U.S. government has put into the Seahawk Romeo, all the technologies and its capability—it was a very logical decision for Australia. The main decision factor comes when you match up competitors head-to-head. People take the attitude of ‘come show me’, so there have been multiple countries coming onboard with the U.S. Navy to see their operation and how it fits in to their whole system, and from that they come out with a different view of the world.

Pino: We are establishing ourselves with our partners as the pre-eminent naval helicopter provider in the world. The current order is for 24 aircraft, with delivery starting in 2014. In total that’s a year’s worth of Romeo production for us, which isn’t bad. Don’t forget that we had an order from Sweden for 15 Black Hawks; that was pretty interesting as it has been a long time since we placed aircraft inside Europe. The Swedish aircraft will to delivered from the U.S. as they ordered Black Hawk Mike models.

Rotor & Wing: How does manufacturing in Europe fit into your overall plan?

Sikorsky displayed its S-70i Black Hawk for the first time in public during the Paris Air Show.  Photo by Andrew Drwiega

Pino: The aircraft at the Paris Air Show is a Polish-built version—the S-70i from PZL Mielec (shown at right). The aim of getting them to build from one to two a month over the next couple of years is on plan. Then we will have to see where the Turkey deal integrates with that. Turkey is going to be a major partner with us over the T-70i. Each is likely to bring a different customer base.

Rotor & Wing: Thank you.

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