Army's next-gen hybrid helicopter program nears next stage

Army Future Vertical Lift program

The Army’s long quest toward Future Vertical Lift aircraft, which would replace its fleet of helicopters with helicopter/plane hybrids capable of long flights and autonomous operation, is nearing a critical juncture. In about a month, program officials will choose which of the four vendors building demonstrators will move on toward full flight testing.

At the moment, the Army isn’t sure how many demonstrators will be chosen, just that it will be fewer than four, Dan Bailey, program director of Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator/FVL, said during a recent panel discussion in Washington, according to the Army.

"We're at the critical point in our schedule where we'd love to take all four to flight test,” but cost concerns prevent that, he said. So the program will “de-scope” to a lower number “within the next 30 days or so."

The four vendors—AVX Aircraft, Bell Helicopter, the Sikorsky-Boeing Team, and Karem Aircraft—are working under a Technology Investment Agreements contract in which they and the Defense Department share development costs 50/50. Each is building a pre-prototype demonstrator with both existing and experimental technologies, with designs that should allow for future technologies to be added. But under the agreement, which runs through 2019, the vendors not chosen for flight tests will continue working on their aircraft and could still wind up being selected for production.

The Army has pursued the FVL idea for years, citing the need to replace an aging fleet of helicopters such as the Apache and Black Hawk, which have received regular upgrades but at costs that are becoming extreme. And while replacing the fleet, the Army is looking for improved capabilities—faster speeds, longer flights, greater agility—from aircraft that will cost less than current helicopters.

The criteria for FVL aircraft includes the ability to make the longest regular deployment flight—from California to Hawaii—on its own, without having to be transported by a C5 aircraft or a ship. That would save a lot of time in sending the aircraft to support troops, and is a focus of the Army as DOD turns its focus to the Pacific.

The Army also wants the aircraft to have both autonomous and semi-autonomous capability, something it recently tested with a Black Hawk helicopter.

After selecting demonstrators for flight tests, the Army plans to make a materiel development decision in late 2016, conduct an analysis of alternative designs in 2017, and stage flight testing in late 2017.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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