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29 April 2016

Quad-A 2016: Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Takes Shape

During a pre-AAAA (Quad-A) interview, Vince Tobin, Bell Helicopter’s Vice President, Advanced Tiltrotor Systems, spoke to MTy about recent progress made constructing the first V-280 VALOR tiltrotor.

(Photos via author)

In the last month the engineers working on Bell Helicopter’s third generation tiltrotor mated the nacelles with the wing. This is a major step forward and will lead on to the complete wing being joined to the fuselage.

The V-280 VALOR is Bell Helicopter’s design for the US Army’s Joint-MultiRole Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) programme, the aim of which is to provide a next generation replacement for Army aviation’s fleets of Boeing AH-64 APACHE attack helicopters and Sikorsky UH-60 BLACK HAWKs around the 2035 timeframe.

Early this fall we will put the tail on the aircraft and will do the preload testing and simultaneously we will install the engines and gearboxes into the nacelles together with the wiring and hydraulic tubing,” said Tobin. “That will lead to another key event, the tethered ground run that we will execute around April 2017.

Once all the additional testing and safety regimes have been checked and rechecked Tobin expects the V-280s first flight to occur right on schedule during  September 2017.

Bell Helicopter’s partner aerostructures specialist Spirit Aerosystems delivered the first fuselage in September last year and the nacelles were manufactured by another partner, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

We call this a capability demonstrator as opposed to the Army’s description of a technology demonstrator because our point is that new technology is not required as it is already on the aircraft,” said Tobin. Outlining the complexity of the V-280 as it currently stands he said: “There is nothing required below Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6 [this is technology demonstrated in an industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies). We are ready for Milestone B (production) now because we don’t need a Milestone A [the Technology Maturation & Risk Reduction (TMRR) Phase] . There is nothing on this aircraft that requires technological development at this stage.”

The decision not to incorporate a rear exit ramp and instead go for the side doors was not only made with the lineage of the Army’s utility helicopters such as the UH-1H HUEY or UH-60 BLACK HAWK in mind, but also a result of the decision to only rotate the nacelle and not the whole engine and gearbox. This meant that exiting troops had a level field of fire and, more importantly, it meant the engineering of the aircraft more simple. Tobin explained: “Now we don’t have to push electronics through a rotating joint and we don’t have to reorientate the engine. We got a lot of benefit out of that.”

The unusual V-tail is soon to be fitted onto the aircraft. It provides a better opportunity to achieve a lowered degree of observability when compared to other tail configurations. “Manoeuvrability at low speeds is achieved with our rotor system, and the 15 degrees of flapping it provides. The V-tail functions as a control surface when significant airflow is present,” added Tobin.

Putting all the differences that exist between the second generation technology of the V-22 OPSREY and the third generation transitional capability now incorporated into the V-280 VALOR, the belief is that the demonstration flight in September 2017 will result in a case being made for the aircraft to quickly go into final development before being ready for an Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP).

Tobin believes that the V-280 could be in production a decade before the Army’s provisional target date for the introduction of FVL Medium which is loosely set at around 2035: “We could begin engineering and manufacturing as early as 2019/20 and that would get us to a start on the LRIP by 2024/25 with a Milestone C at that point and deliveries of the aircraft beginning soon after. So our goal would be to reduce the timeline by a decade.”

Commonality between the attack version and the utility version [FVL Medium is to replace both the APACHE and BLACK HAWK remember] will be essential to keep maintenance costs down. This is something that Bell Helicopter has already achieved in parts commonality between the UH-1Y HUEY and the AH-1Z COBRA, both of which are well into replacing older models in the ranks of the US Marine Corps. “We definitely want everything above the wing fuselage joint completely identical so that we can just hang a different fuselage underneath for each version,” said Tobin adding that there could also be, “a fuselage made entirely for an attack version with tandem seating as in the Cobra and Apache attack helicopters. Once we know the requirements for that version we can design to it.”

There is International interest in the V-280 but potential customers are at a ‘wait-and-see’ stage until the Department of Defense (DoD) has confirmed its decision over FVL Medium.

Rumours of Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) Re-ignited

The Army’s Request for Information (RfI) issued on 18 February 2016 proved to be incendiary as it stated that the aim was for Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Capability Set #1. According to the official synopsis the “FVL CS 1 air vehicle is the smallest, most agile air vehicle in the FVL Family of Systems (FoS). The CS 1 air vehicle will conduct reconnaissance, light attack and light assault/lift operations in support of Army and Joint forces.” Many have read this as the beginning of the recall of the AAS programme.

But somewhat confusingly it continues that it, “is not a Request for Proposal (RFP) (and that)…the USG does not presently intend to award a CS 1 contract.” This is followed by the statement: “The RFI should focus on technologies targeted for a 2030 fielding.” Confused?

This kind of request was not totally unexpected, stated Tobin. While Bell Helicopter is primarily focused on Capability Set 3 (FVL Medium), and the Army continues to indicate that its policy is headed in that direction, it is a Request for Purchase (RFP) that will ultimately grab the headlines.

Does Tobin believe that the AAS is being reconsidered? “I don’t think so,” he maintained. “You need to talk to the DoD on what their plans are but our view is that we want to give them a difficult decision to procure their next aircraft…the RfI for CS 1 is just a first step at looking at the practicalities of where everyone is currently. While some have interpreted this as a major shift in direction but they still asked for the CS 3 response. We don’t see it as a major shift. It’s not so much a course change as just getting a more complete picture of what is out there.”

Concludes Tobin: “Tiltrotor technology is imminently scalable, from the small EAGLe EYE (unmanned  tiltrotor) to a wing and rotor system big enough to carry a C-130 HERCULESfuselage. It is adaptable and it doesn’t bother us if they (the Army) want to look at other sizes. Our view is that the biggest bang for the buck is in FVL Medium and having it early.”
Andrew Drwiega