Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor (above video courtesy of Bell Helicopter) is being developed under the U.S. Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) program to fulfill the Capability Set 3 requirement for a medium-lift aircraft. But the company thinks that, should long-talked-about defense acquisition reform come to fruition, that future could be closer than anticipated.
V-280 construction completion was announced at the beginning of September. Bell said the aircraft completed its first low power ground run Sept. 29. Oct. 7, the aircraft completed a ground test with rotor rotations per minute at 100%. First hover flight is scheduled for November, with first conventional flight scheduled for the following month. Bell’s timeline has the V-280 able to enter the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase in 2019 or 2020.
That would be some five years sooner than the military’s FVL timeline.
During a media event at Bell’s assembly facility in Amarillo, Texas, V-280 Program Manager Chris Gehler and Global Military Business Development Director Carl Coffman explained how the company’s accelerated timeline could work. It rests on the assumption that the Department of Defense would adopt a new acquisition procedure, aligning with its goal of reforming the acquisition process. Gehler said the steps in the FVL program align with the goals of a Technology Maturation Risk Reduction (TMRR) phase, which is a phase that comes prior to a competitive bid. If the government could accept the work Bell is doing for the FVL program as a substitute for a TMRR phase, the acquisition process could be accelerated. This could take off up to eight years, according to Gehler.
“When DoD talks about acquisition reform, this is one of the concepts that they internally are looking at. It’s really a matter of what each of the bureaucracies inside there will agree to. But certainly the Chief of Staff of the Army, or the Secretary of Defense, would like to see capability to a warfighter sooner,” Gehler said. “If you’ve done all the requirements that we would have done here anyway, then looking at entering into Milestone B instead of doing a technology maturation risk reduction phase again, certainly makes a lot of sense.”
Another obstacle to this accelerated timeline is the fact that the Army has said it does not view the two aircraft participating in the FVL program (the other being the Sikorsky/Boeing team’s SB>1 Defiant) as prototypes. After all, the program is for technology demonstrators.
“Industry is certainly trying to provide an option, but what industry has right now is not a prototype,” Maj. Gen. William Gayler, chief of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, told R&WI sister publication Defense Daily at a recent event held by the Association of the U.S. Army. “It is going to be very informative to the final solution. I think we have to have that. We’ve got to have industry leaning forward. If industry listens to concepts and how we will fight and what combination of attributes will be important to us, it will only help them in the future.”
But according to Coffman:
“We just have a disagreement on what we call the aircraft, whether it be a demonstrator or a prototype,” he told R&WI.
Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter
To further explain Bell’s position, Coffman pointed to the DoDI 5000.02, which contains instructions on the defense acquisition process. Within that document is the definition of a competitive prototype. A competitive prototype considers technical risk, acquisition cost, time to field the system, and refines requirements and develops maintenance procedures, Coffman said. Although there are no official requirements from the military for these FVL aircraft, Coffman said he believes Bell has a competitive prototype.
“If this aircraft was built outside of a tech demonstrator agreement, it certainly meets the requirements, meets the definition criteria of being called a competitive prototype,” Coffman said of the V-280. “We've gone above and beyond a tech demonstrator build here. We're at [Technology Readiness Level] 6 … So we're considering that a competitive prototype.”
Coffman went on to say that the government is well aware of this disagreement. According to him, Bell has been working closely with Defense during the whole V-280 process. The manufacturer has invited the government to come see the aircraft and perform a Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA). Bell hopes the invitation to “grade our homework and tell us where you think we are,” as Coffman put it, will lead to an agreement — in Bell’s favor — in the argument of prototype or demonstrator.
To help win the Army’s favor, Bell designed the V-280 to align with what the Army is currently using. The Army does not currently operate the Bell-Boeing V-22. V-280 Build Team Manager Jeff Josselyn said that the new tiltrotor’s wingspan is about the same size as a Sikorsky Black Hawk, although the company claims the two aircraft have different capabilities. (Bell says the V-280 would have twice the speed, maybe five-times the range as a late-model Black Hawk.) Josselyn, a former Black Hawk pilot, noted the V-280’s “spacious” cockpit and its large windows. The current prototype’s cabin takes advantage of the partnership with Lockheed Martin and features the same suite found in a C-130K. And although the V-280 is designed as a fly-by-wire aircraft and doesn’t need a traditional cyclic/collective configuration, Bell has fitted the aircraft with side sticks, borrowed from the 525. The V-22 features a forward throttle control. The fuselage is borrowed from the 525 as well; Bell is partnered with Spirit AeroSystems for that component.
The V-22 also features forward-swept wings. Gehler said that because of lessons learned from that aircraft, the V-280 has straight wings. The V-280’s blades are also different from the Ospreys, the former being made with carbon fiber. The V-22 features an “H” tail, and the V-280 features a “V” tail. Borne out of lessons learned from the Osprey, Bell also aims to increase maintainability and manufacturability (both sides of the “V” tail have the same part number). But perhaps the most notable difference between the two tiltrotors are the nacelles. Instead of rotating the entire nacelle during the transition from hover to forward flight as does the V-22, only the propellers rotate on the V-280, leaving the engine at a single orientation.
“From a maintainability standpoint, because the nacelle doesn’t rotate, my engine is now fixed. Because my engine is fixed, all my fuel, electric, hydraulic, conveyance systems going out to that power plant are fixed. So we don’t have to qualify the engine, both the horizontal and the vertical,” Josseyln said. “Cooling issues are not a factor because of the application of this engine. It also lends itself very, very easy to maintenance. From a manufacturability/produceability standpoint at the OEM, it’s efficient for us to build. We’ve realized that already through our engine and gearbox installation. That directly translates to the fleet or end user from a maintainability standpoint. So if we can manufacture it efficiently, you can maintain it efficiently as well.”
V-247 rendering. Image courtesy of Bell Helicopter
Not only is the V-280 designed to comply with future Army needs, it could also help comply with future Marine Corps needs. Bell said the Valor is also a testbed for technology planned for its V-247 Vigilant. It is planned that the Vigilant will be autonomous, along with other capabilities. Gehler said those technologies could be tested on the V-280 as soon as next year. But Bell’s focus is to provide the military a replacement for the Sikorsky UH-60 and other medium-lift rotorcraft, as well as an escort to the V-22. Bell hopes
“We know that there is still engineering and manufacturing development phase ahead of us, as far as the acquisition process. But we believe this aircraft will revolutionize the way our military operates,” said Vince Tobin, Bell’s EVP of military business. “It’s the speed, range, payload with the vertical lift takeoff and landing capability that a tiltrotor provides. And we see the V280 as being an excellent compliment to the V-22 that’s already fielded.”
This article was updated Oct. 10, 2017.