Are Helicopters Dead?

Textron's Bell V-280 Valor wins a billion-dollar Pentagon contract that may signal the end for military helicopters.

Bell Helicopter Textron has won a major contract to supply the Pentagon with a new, multirole and speedy light attack aircraft. It’s a tiltrotor, and it defeated a competing coaxial compound helicopter from a Lockheed/Boeing consortium. Tilt rotors aren’t new, with V-22 Osprey variants operating in U.S. military service for years, but detractors of that program have pointed to high early accident rates and maintainability issues as evidence that tiltrotors can’t replace pure helicopters for VTOL assault and light cargo applications. The new V-280 Valor is a smaller and lighter aircraft than the Osprey, and with modern technology, promises to address the shortcomings of the older platform. If it delivers reliability and safety in service, it will allow fixed wing speeds with helicopter-like vertical lift capability, a game changer for military aviation—and perhaps urban civilian aeronautics, too.

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Episode Transcript:

Big contracts are nothing new in U.S. military procurement, but this one was bigger than most. The U.S. Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program is designed to replace the Army’s venerable Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk as part of the larger Future Vertical Lift Program.  

And the Army has chosen a winner: the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor.  

Future Army doctrine anticipates combat scenarios with advanced scout helicopters and unmanned drones used to control an area, allowing the FLRAA assault aircraft to bring in troops. This kind of mission has been common since the Vietnam War, but experience in that war showed that helicopters are extremely vulnerable—and just as importantly, they are slow.  

The Valor is far from slow, with a 320 mile-per-hour cruise speed and a combat range between 600 and 900 miles, powered by two Rolls-Royce AE 1107F turboshaft engines. The aircraft has a crew of four and is designed to carry 14 troops and can carry slung loads up to 10,000 pounds using dual cargo hooks. The airframe is built with metals and carbon fibre reinforced composites and uses a triple redundant fly by wire control system.  

Like the current service tiltrotor, the V-22 Osprey, the podded turboshaft engines at the ends of the stub wing are cross-connected with a driveshaft, allowing both rotors to be driven by a single engine in an emergency. The engines are derivatives of the power plants used in the Osprey, but with higher power, and the V-280 has a lower disc loading, for greater hover efficiency.  

The program was built around MBSE principles with the digital thread used to decrease program risk, and just as importantly, to control unit costs. Final unit costs are dependent on the size of the program buy, macroeconomic factors like inflation and on the configuration of production aircraft. According to Bloomberg, the Army contract may be worth up to 1.3 billion dollars and aims to deliver production aircraft by 2030.  

A major program aim for the Army is to test whether new engineering technologies and procurement systems can deliver modern aircraft without the delays and cost overruns seen in previous programs, such as the Osprey. The Army will spend up to 7 billion dollars by the time initial low-rate production begins.  

Overall, the market is huge, with estimates ranging from 60 to 90 billion dollars, and Bell’s victory would appear to guarantee the success of the firm’s military aircraft business for decades to come.  

Similarly, the loser, Lockheed/Boeing’s Defiant X coaxial rotor helicopter, may signal a sea change away from pure helicopters worldwide. Business analysts such as Roman Schweizer of Cowen Research have written that this loss may put the viability of Boeing’s helicopter business in question, although the firm is bullish on Boeing overall.  

If so, the Pentagon has some interesting choices to make. Go all in on tiltrotor technology, and possibly face a future with a single source of a critical aviation technology, or purchase coaxial rotor helicopters as well, to keep the Lockheed Martin/Boeing team in the vertical lift business and keeping competitive pressure on Bell.  

Service-wide standardization has benefits. So does supply chain diversification. With up to 90 billion dollars of market share to be won, it’s very likely that the helicopter as a concept won’t go down without a fight.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.