With its first year of flight tests finished, Bell just might take its V-280 Valor aircraft on tour. That’s how confident the company is in its new tiltrotor, the proposed high-speed replacement for thousands of Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and Marine Corps UH-1Z Super Hueys.
By contrast, Bell’s competitor on the Future Vertical Lift program, a dream team of Lockheed Martin’s Sikorskyand Boeing, had to announce last week that the first flight of their SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter would be delayed into early 2019.
Now, Bell’s lead is not decisive. Sikorsky & Boeing insist they will have time to do all the flight tests the Pentagon requires before a 2021 decision to move the current flight demonstration program into a full procurement program of record.
Conversely, Bell hasn’t finished all its flight tests yet. But the V-280 has already hit so many milestones that the company is considering adding a few more. That includes extra flight testing not on the original schedule — something the company’s asked the Pentagon to help pay for — and flying the aircraft to select military bases around the country — which would be entirely at Bell’s own expense.
“We … are looking at opportunities to do a road trip,” Bell executive Keith Flail told me. “Can we take the V-280 to a handful of key Army and Marine Corps installations to show capabilities to the force?”
Yes, this “roadshow” would be expensive for the company, but Bell’s already spent almost five dollars of its own for every $1 from the government (as has the Sikorsky-Boeing team), and it might be worth spending some more to maximize their chances of winning the massive program. Flail didn’t say where the aircraft might go, but key customers who’d love a first-hand look include the Army’s aviation schoolhouse at Fort Rucker, Ala.; the Special Operations units at Fort Bragg, N.C.; the heliborne 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ken.; and the Marine Corps’ home base in Quantico.
Bell’s already flown the V-280 some 370 miles from its birthplace, the company’s Amarillo factory, to Bell’s recently upgraded Flight Research Center in Arlington, Tex. Other milestones:
- – reached maximum speed of 250 knots (288 mph), not quite 90 percent of the way towards the 280-knot (322 mph) goal enshrined in the aircraft’s name;
- – reached maximum altitude of 11,000 feet;
- – banked up to 50 degrees in 200-knot turns and pulled up to two gees of acceleration;
- – accumulated over 82 hours of flight time, plus nearly another 100 hours of ground tests with the aircraft spinning its rotors but bolted down so it couldn’t fly off unexpectedly (that would be bad).
As the aircraft advances through its flight tests, Bell’s putting a particular emphasis on “low-speed agility,” Flail said. “We’ve shown a lot of that and we’ll show even more.”
What Flail didn’t say aloud: This emphasis on agility is a direct rebuttal to their competition’s primary selling point. Because the Sikorsky-Boeing compound helicopter technology — basically a regular chopper with extra-rigid rotor blades and a pusher propeller on the back to reach high speeds — flies a lot more like a conventional helicopter than Bell’s tiltrotors do, the SB>1 team argues they’ll be more maneuverable, especially at low speeds and in tight corners.
On the other hand, compound helicopters are a new technology, with just two aircraft flown: Sikorsky’s X2 and S-97, both much smaller than the SB>1 Defiant. By contrast, Bell’s V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which is larger than V-280, has accumulated over 450,000 hours in real-world military operations. (CLARIFICATION: Boeing builds the V-22 in a 50-50 partnership with Bell — a partnership that continues even as the two companies compete on FVL — but it’s Bell that spent decades developing the tiltrotor technology).
Sikorsky and Boeing can only prove their agility claims once they get in the air. Bell clearly wants to have a lot of data on its side before the competition first takes flight.