Image courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
MARIGNANE, France — Airbus Helicopters is responding to the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program with a concept based on its new high-speed civilian helicopter prototype, according to Chief Executive Bruno Even.
“We are looking at the FARA demonstrator program based on the technology we have developed in terms of a high-speed platform, based on the X3 in particular,” Even said Feb. 18 at the Airbus headquarters here. “This competency, this technology we have developed … clearly we want to leverage, then, in order to propose a competitive solution first at the demonstrator phase for the U.S. DoD program.”
“We are in the process to build what would be offered,” he added.
The Army officially kicked off the FARA competition in October with a solicitation on the government’s contracting website. The document lays out a four-phase competitive prototyping effort that should yield operational, experimental aircraft flying by November 2022.
Neither Even nor Scott Tumpak, Airbus’ head of U.S. governmental programs, would say if production of an operational prototype was actually underway. In that regard, the company’s strategy mirrors Bell’s. Citing the competitive environment, both firms are playing their respective offerings extremely close to the vest.
“You’re on the right track,” Tumpak said, when asked if the Airbus offering is based on X3 technology. Tumpak spoke to reporters Feb. 19 during a visit to the Airbus plant in Donauworth, Germany.
The X3 technology “is being evolved towards RACER and you could also envision a military path for that technology, as well,” he said.
Airbus first demonstrated its X3 prototype aircraft — now a museum piece in Marignane — in 2013. It combined a somewhat traditional helicopter fuselage with stub wings tipped with forward-facing propellers that provided speed in forward flight.
That design has evolved into the company’s Rapid and Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (RACER) aircraft that should fly 50 percent faster than a traditional helicopter while burning 25 percent less fuel.
Proposals for the initial design review phase of FARA were due in December and Airbus has submitted its information, if not necessarily plans for a complete operational prototype. That puts it in the running with Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider or some variation of the compound helicopter, an as-yet unrevealed Bell offering likely based on its V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor and a joint proposal from L3 and AVX Aircraft Company, which is also under wraps.
The Army plans to contract between four and six manufacturers to participate in a nine-month initial design review phase. A selection of offerors should be made in late June or early July. From that group, two companies will move on to build competing demonstration aircraft, essentially participating in a "fly-off" for the Army and then one or both will be further contracted to enter an engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase.
“One of the things we’re particularly supportive of is the Army taking a little bit of a non-traditional approach here to assess what is already out there in the market, the suitability of that for the requirements, backed up by the demonstration and not just paper,” Tumpak said. “It gives them significant risk reduction going into their formal development process.”
Without specifying the scale of the Airbus proposal, Tumpak noted the Army has published requirements for a 40-foot rotor disc to suit urban combat missions and a cruise speed of 180 knots.
“I think you’ll find that traditional helicopters are … limited,” in regards to speed, he said.