Investment in Future Vertical Lift Worth The Risk, Industry Officials Agree

By Dan Parsons | October 5, 2018
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Boeing Sikorsky JMR Future Vertical Lift

Sikorsky and Boeing are jointly producing a medium-lift-sized demonstrator called the SB>1 Defiant. Photo courtesy of Sikorsky

Aircraft manufacturers are willing to develop next-generation rotorcraft technologies on their own dime as long as the U.S. military is committed to funding acquisition programs instead of pulling the rug out from under them, representatives of most heavyweight helicopter manufacturers agree.

The Army is again in the market for revolutionary new rotorcraft, but industry vividly remembers repeated past failures like the RAH-66 Comanche that ate up about $7 billion before being summarily canceled in 2004.


Even losing industry teams can justify developing new technologies if the government commits to a program, said Randy Rotte, Boeing’s director of global sales for cargo helicopters and future vertical lift programs.

“I would submit … that if you decide to compete in that space and make a huge investment and the program runs it’s course and you lose, that’s acceptable,” Rotte said Oct. 4 at a forum on future vertical lift hosted by the Royal Aeronautical Society at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. “It’s OK to lose to, perhaps, someone better.”

Rotte was joined on the panel by Bell’s V-280 Program Manager Ryan Ehinger; Andrew Gappy, Director of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Programs at Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed’s Vice President of Army Programs Kevin Mangum.

“What’s not OK, or makes it really difficult to then justify the next-time investment, is when you invest and you get to a point and the program goes away,” he added. “Priorities change. We thought we wanted this and now we want that. That’s a cautionary tale.”

Bell V-280

Bell V-280. Photo courtesy of Bell

The U.S. Army has officially launched a search for a next-generation light scout aircraft amidst its ongoing Joint Multirole Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) that has yielded one advanced tiltrotor flight demonstrator and a prototype compound helicopter.

The so-called Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) will be the fifth time the Army has initiated a program to replace its legacy rotorcraft, Rotte pointed out. Comanche is joined by the Armed Aerial Scout competition, which supplanted the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and the Bell ARH-70 Arapaho that was canceled in 2008.

Industry has responded with a flurry innovative research-and-development activity aimed at achieving high-speed, highly maneuverable aircraft. Bell test pilots have put more than 60 hours on the V-280 Valor demonstrator while Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider recently achieved 202 knots in level flight. The Boeing-Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant is nearing completion and prepping for a first flight before the end of the year.

While either or both of those may represent the future of Army aviation, industry has laid out massive sums for their development. Boeing/Lockheed Martin and Bell, the two primary industry teams participating in JMR-TD, have invested as much as one billion dollars in development of their operational prototypes, according to an industry source. The U.S. Army has invested less than half that with no commitment to purchase either design.

“Before we embark on any of these endeavors, we do a very rigorous analysis of business cases, as we’re competing internally for our own funds,” Rotte said. “We’re competing with programs from all different services, from the commercial sector, for space.”

Lockheed’s Mangum, a former three-star Army general who commanded the service’s aviation center of excellence at Fort Rucker, said that developing revolutionary new aircraft is an inherently expensive endeavor, but aerospace primes cannot afford not to enter the ring.

“Another twist on that is, can you afford not to be in the market? These are franchises that will be enduring,” Mangum said. “With all of the services now exercising other transactional authorities and mid-tier authorities,I think everybody including the services are trying to figure out what in the world that means and how that is going to play.”

“It’s a brave new world and that makes this adventure of changing the future of rotorcraft all the more sporty and interesting,” he added.

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