ABOVE DULLES AIRPORT: Eager to get out its message that the Boeing-Leonardo MH-139 helicopter would save the US taxpayer $1 billion as the replacement of the UH-1N helicopter, Boeing flew several journalists this afternoon to demonstrate its capabilities. (Boeing’s Rick Lemaster makes the case in our video above).
Boeing also delivered nine boxes to the Defense Department this afternoon containing its proposal for the program that will supply 84 helicopters for a range of missions, including moving security crews in the event of threats to our nation’s ICBM fields, escorting convoys moving nuclear weapons, flying senior government officials out of the capital in the event of an emergency and also providing support to the US Embassy in Japan.
Lockheed has also submitted its proposal for the UH-1N helicopter replacement program. “We are confident it will provide the best solution for the Air Force’s critical missile site and utility support missions,” spokeswoman Melissa Chadwick says in an evening email.
Bids are due by close of business tomorrow. One bit of good news for the Air Force: Because this program has already been funded, it won’t be affected by yet another congressional Continuing Resolution, such as the one covering government spending to December. The bids come four days before the start of the Air Force Association’s annual conference, site of so many abortive announcements about this program.
This program has been a long time coming. Just ask Gen. John Hyten, head of Strategic Command. “Of all the things in my portfolio, I can’t even describe how upset get about the helicopter replacement program,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. “It’s a helicopter, for gosh sakes. We ought to be able to go out and buy a helicopter and put it in the hands of the people that need it. And we should be able to do that quickly.”
As Breaking D readers will remember, the Air Force yielded to congressional pressure after it tried to issue a sole source contract to buy 25 of Lockheed Martin’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the nuclear mission.
A key requirement for the competitors to meet is the ability to carry a full load of nine combat-ready airmen. Lockheed says their HH-60U can carry nine fully outfitted Security Forces specialists, special equipment, and two special mission aviators for the Continuity of Operations mission, which is all about getting senior leaders out of harm’s way in a disaster or attack.
Boeing would not discuss how many fully combat ready Security Forces troops its helicopter can carry and the aircraft we flew in was not configured as it would be for the program. When configured for commercial use (mainly oil and gas companies), though, the helicopter can carry 15 passengers, so I’m betting it can handle the load.
There have been questions about the ability of the offerings to handle some of the Air Force requirements, especially those involving the “high and hot” requirements. Flying at altitude in hot weather places great strain on helicopters and is one of their greatest challenges. I understand the highest altitude they would operate at around the missile fields is about 6,200 feet. Of course, the Continuity of Operations mission could involve flights at a wider array of locations, but low-lying Washington DC is far and away the most likely.
One of the most striking things about today’s flight on the Boeing-Leonardo aircraft was the lack of vibration. Anyone who’s flown on Black Hawks knows the comforting vibrations from its four rotor blades. (I usually fall asleep within five minutes of takeoff.) The MH-139 has five rotor blades, which, with their tapered ends, significantly reduce the amount of vibration. The helicopter was also noticeably quieter than most of its conventional military competitors. We flew up to 150 knots and it felt as smooth as a large Mercedes sedan on the highway. Also, as a 62-year-old with lousy Achilles tendons, I noticed that entry and exit was pretty easy.
May the best helicopter program, embodying the best combination of cost and capability, win.