While industry observers had speculated that Textron Inc.'s Bell would offer a tiltrotor for the U.S. Army Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition, Bell has instead offered a conventional rotorcraft based on the company's new 525 helicopter.
"I think we have a very competitive offering for FARA," Textron CEO Scott Donnelly said in a conference call with investors on April 17. "We haven't talked a lot about it publicly, but I mean look it's not going to be a secret for long where we have basically taken the technology that we've invested in pretty significantly over the past number of years on 525. Remember 525, we've seen this craft flying over 200 knots and that's a function of the technology that we've invested in terms of the rotor technology, the fly by-wire systems, control systems that has enabled us to field a more conventional helicopter that has very high speed, very efficient, very smooth operating capability. And so what we did basically is taking that technology that we've validated in the 525 program and scaling that down to a size and weight that's consistent with the FARA requirement."
Thus far, Bell, an AVX/L3 team, Airbus and Sikorsky are in the competition to build FARA, which the Army describes as a “knife fighter” helicopter that will fill the gap left by retiring the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. MD Helicopters has also not given up on fighting to have the Army include a winged variant of its 969 helicopter in the competition, company CEO Lynn Tilton said last week at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual conference in Nashville.
Donnelly also said that the Army fiscal 2020 budget request was enough to continue his company's efforts on the Bell V-280, an advanced tiltrotor demonstrator that is competing in the Army's Joint Multi-role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program against the Sikorsky/Boeing SB-1 Defiant, which employs two coaxial rigid rotors for lift and a variable-pitch pusher prop.
Bell said that its FARA offering leverages what the company had learned from JMR-TD and the V-280.
The V-280 and SB-1 are designed to meet the goals of the Army Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program for a Black Hawk-like utility and assault aircraft. The Army has been deliberating whether it can and should try to accelerate the program.
In January, before the release of the Army FY 2020 budget request, Donnelly warned that Textron would need significantly more investment by the Army in its Future Vertical Lift program, or the company faced pulling funding from the V-280 development effort. The Army fiscal 2020 budget request includes $800 million for Future Vertical Lift and about $6 billion more through fiscal 2024.
Since debuting in December 2017, the V-280 has accumulated more than 100 hours of flight time and has demonstrated a true airspeed of 300 kts, according to Bell.
"We're pleased with what's in there," Donnelly said of the Army's budget plans for Future Vertical Lift in FY 2020 and future years. "Obviously, the bulk of the money that's laid out for [fiscal] 2020 was on FARA...You have to remember though that when they put all those budgets together that was really before the V-280 was very far into its flight test program, so I'd say that that has influenced things pretty significantly. They would like to add additional funding, and they have asked for more funding to keep that program moving, both in terms of flight test activity, as well as to initiate the former procurement."
The Army is to award a FLRAA contract in late fiscal 2021 followed by a preliminary design review the following year and a critical design review in fiscal 2024. First flight is to occur in the second half of fiscal 2024, the Army’s published program schedule says.