Industry Spooled Up For US Navy Helicopter Trainer Competition

By Dan Parsons | September 4, 2018
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TH-57 Sea Ranger Helicopters Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Hard at work on a formal set of requirements, the U.S. Navy is not saying much about its effort to replace its aging TH-57 training helicopter, but the competition is already spooling up.

Based on a draft request for information published in October, the Navy is in the market for a commercial, off-the-shelf replacement for its TH-57 Sea Ranger training helicopter fleet. Plans are to start buying new trainers in fiscal year 2020, just about 16 months from now, and have the entire TH-57 fleet divested by 2023.


That is fast by any measure of military procurement, but Navy insistence on non-developmental platforms that are already cleared with the FAA to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR) have service officials convinced this time around will be successful.

“An FAA-certified IFR platform … will be required at the time of proposal submission,” the Navy said in its most recent communication with industry hopefuls. Navy officials declined to comment on the record as a final RFP is in the works with a February release date.

The Navy has planned to replace its Sea Ranger trainers since 2007. The service suffered a false start when an attempt to upgrade the legacy TH-57 to a D-model configuration was deemed too expensive and was canceled in 2012.

All Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard rotorcraft pilots train on the same fleet at Whiting Field in Pensacola, Florida, so the Advanced Training Helicopter System (ATHS) program — which is searching for the TH-XX — has wide-ranging readiness implications for naval forces.

The Navy did look at a TH-57D program briefly and found it was not cost effective, given the age of the current airframes. Going 35 years since fielding the TH-57, the Navy found it would get more for its money buying new aircraft with the latest avionics technologies than to attempt retrofitting them into legacy aircraft. Part of the relative rush to field a TH-57 replacement is an FAA requirement for ADS-B Out by 2020.

The legacy TH-57C is IFR certified under an earlier version of the FAA’s current standards, but would no longer pass. Therefore, the Navy is insisting on IFR certification under the updated restrictions.

An industry day is scheduled for November, followed by a final RFP in February 2019. Final proposals likely will be due in April with a contract award in early fiscal 2020, according to Navy documents.

Industry is aware of much of what the Navy needs in a new trainer. In materials distributed at an earlier industry day and in the draft RFP, the Navy listed its likely requirements for an ATHS.

Preliminary requirements call for a single type model series aircraft with the following specifications:

Preliminary AHTS US Navy helicopter requirements

Document courtesy of Naval Air Systems Command

When proposals are due in April 2019, the Navy likely will have at least three in-production helicopters from which to choose.

Bell 407GXi

Bell 407 GXi over Ft. Worth, Texas. Photo by Dan Parsons

With its 407GXi, Bell is offering the Navy an evolutionary upgrade to its TH-57 fleet, and the company is banking on the service seeing value in a modern version of the single-engine training helicopter it has now.

The TH-57 Sea Ranger is based on the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, which also served as the basis of the U.S. Army’s now-retired OH-58 Kiowa armed scout helicopter. Bell’s offering to replace it is the most modern version of the 407 — the GXi.

“We think it’s the best value for them,” Colin Smith, Bell’s senior manager of military business, told R&WI. “We think it is the most affordable option for the Navy to go with a single-engine aircraft. Your direct operating costs are a lot lower in a single-engine aircraft.”

“We also feel it’s a low-risk offering for them as they go from the TH-57, which is a Bell aircraft, to continue with the Bell lineage of the aircraft,” he added. “That’s going to give them a common maintenance methodology.”

There are more than 1,500 407s in operation, accumulating more than 4.75 million flight hours, he said. The GXi improves on the legacy airframe with an advanced autopilot, an all-glass digital cockpit with Garmin 1000 touchscreen displays, a bird-strike-resistant polycarbonate windshield and other safety improvements.

The 407 GXi shares 1,000 part numbers and 25% of the tools required to maintain the TH-57, which entered service as the primary Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard training helicopter in 1968. The Navy added more advanced B and C models to the fleet at Advanced Helicopter Training School at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Florida, over the years. Planned TH-57D upgrades to standard digital cockpits never got off the ground.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter is built by Northrop Grumman from the Bell 407 airframe, so the Navy has some 407-specific parts in its supply chain. Manufactured at Bell’s Mirabel, Quebec, plant, 407 final assembly and kitting is done in the U.S.

Being the incumbent gives Bell an edge on the competition because it has the experience to upgrade the aircraft and revamp the maintenance and training syllabus, Clifton said.

“Bell has been in business with the Navy for more than three decades,” he said. “Being the incumbent has given us the experience to look at the Navy and say, 'Look, you need not just a new airframe, but we can help you maybe make some adjustments to your syllabus, maybe make some adjustments to be more efficient.’”

“Intuitively, a Bell-to-Bell transition is going to be easier,” he said. “So the maintainers will walk out and they’ll look at the aircraft, and they’ll understand how it’s constructed — the design methodology — because it’s a Bell.”

Airbus Helicopters H135

Airbus H135 U.S. Navy trainer

Airbus Helicopters H135 as a contender for the U.S. Navy trainer replacement. Photo courtesy of Airbus

Airbus Helicopters hopes the commercial approach it took providing the UH-72 Lakota as the U.S. Army’s primary helicopter trainer will appeal to the Navy when it chooses its own new trainer.

Airbus is pitching the twin-engine H135 helicopter as the U.S. Navy’s next trainer in a near-mirror reprise of its offer of the H145 to the Army to replace its TH-67 Creek trainer.

Airbus in May announced plans to go up against Leonardo and Bell in pitching an aircraft to replace the Navy’s current fleet of aging TH-57s. Bell is pitching its newly unveiled 407GXi — the most modern version of the venerable 206, on which both the TH-57 and Army TH-67 Creek are based. Leonardo is pitching the rebranded TH-119, a version of its commercial AW119Kx.

“We don’t have decades … of being under contract with the U.S. government,” according to company President Chris Emerson.  “Our DNA is we self-invest, and we drive off a commercial strategy, and that’s worked for us  … We’ve been able to prove that we can deliver a commercial off-the-shelf product to the U.S. Army.”

Despite being a twin-engine helicopter, the H135 is “comparable to a single-engine helicopter in terms of operating costs,” he said.

Emerson underscored the H135’s suitability for training the next generation of pilots and ensuring the Navy’s readiness in the face of a potential pilot shortage.

“How do we pull in a new generation into a very traditional industry?” he said, adding that there is an estimated shortage of 3,000 pilots across all U.S. military services.

A benefit that enhances the service’s readiness requirement is the H135’s Helionix modular avionics system that can be upgraded as needed, Emerson said.

Leonardo TH-119

Leonardo TH-119

Leonardo is vying its TH-119 for the U.S. Navy's helicopter trainer replacement. Image courtesy of Leonardo

With the TH-119, Leonardo Helicopters is offering the U.S. Navy twin-engine performance, power and safety in a single-engine package that is less expensive to buy and maintain.

“With the TH-119, we are delivering what we are calling a full-spectrum training helicopter,” Andrew Gappy, Leonardo’s director of Navy, Marine Corps and federal programs, told R&WI. “It’s equally capable in one configuration to do every flight they currently do in the syllabus. It still has plenty of room to grow.”

“You’re basically getting twin-engine capability at a single-engine cost profile,” Gappy added. “There are times when having a twin-engine is a good thing. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

Leonardo’s TH-119 is derived from the light twin-engine AW109 Trekker, but with a single engine. It features a dual-display avionics system with modern glass cockpit compatible with night-vision devices by Genesys Aerospace Systems. More than 250 AW119s have been built at Leonardo’s plant outside Philadelphia.

Powered by a single 1,000-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6B engine, the 119 brings many of the safety and redundancy of a twin-engine helicopter into a simpler, more cost-effective airframe designed specifically for training, Gappy said.

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