A TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopter taxis down the flight line preparing for a routine training flight at Naval Air Station Whiting Field.
A TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopter taxis down the flight line preparing for a routine training flight at Naval Air Station Whiting Field.

Bids are in and the decision on which new helicopter trainer to buy resides with the Navy, which can select from three well-known challengers.

April 2 was the deadline for companies to submit final proposals to build the Advanced Helicopter Training System (AHTS), designated TH-XX, that will replace the Bell [TXT] TH-57 Sea Rangers on which all Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard rotorcraft pilots learn to fly.

Leonardo Helicopters was first out the gate April 2 with a lengthy announcement it had submitted the single-engine TH-119. Airbus Helicopters submitted the twin-engine H135P3 for the program. Incumbent Bell confirmed it has submitted the 407GXi — a high-tech modern evolution of the 206 on which the TH-57 is based.

It is shaping up to be a battle between twin and single-engine aircraft and whether the latter can achieve instrument flight rules certification by the FAA in time to meet the Navy’s deadline for that milestone later this year.

Leonardo is vying its TH-119 for the U.S. Navy’s helicopter trainer replacement. Image courtesy of Leonardo

The TH-119 earlier this year achieved FAA certification to fly with its new Genesys Aerosystems glass cockpit but has not been cleared to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR), a Navy requirement.

The aircraft “has completed its flight tests and meets all FAA requirements and safety standards for IFR certification,” Leonardo said. A company spokesperson told sister publication R&WI next month is the target for gaining IFR certification for the TH-119.

Bell also is working diligently to get the GXi IFR certified this year. “The team is confident and working towards the Navy’s mid-fourth quarter deadline,” a company spokesperson told R&WI in an email.

The Bell 407GXi. (Dan Parsons)

Airbus is ahead of the pack because the H135 is already IFR certified, but some industry analysts have questioned whether a twin-engine aircraft, with its added weight, can perform repeated autorotations to the ground, a maneuver that puts a lot of stress on the airframe and is currently a part of the sea services’ basic pilot training curriculum.

The Navy’s published requirements are “engine agnostic,” meaning there is no specified powerplant or number of engines it wants in a new trainer.

Airbus counters that its twin-engine aircraft eliminates the need to perform autorotations all the way to the ground and that it can persuade the Navy to change its curriculum based on the H135’s capabilities.

“As an OEM with a proven history in military helicopter training, we are confident our commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution provides the U.S. Navy with the Best-Value capability of producing the world’s best maritime rotary wing pilots,” an Airbus spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

Airbus is offering its H135 in the company’s bid to build the new Navy training helicopter. (Courtesy: Airbus)

Of the three, Leonardo’s TH-119 is the only helicopter currently built in the U.S., at the company’s facility outside Philadelphia. Airbus builds the H135 in Germany, but has plans to build the aircraft in Texas if it wins. Bell builds the 407 in Mirabel, Canada, but would bring assembly to Texas if it is awarded the contract.

The Navy on Jan. 28 published the final request for proposals to build a replacement for its fleet of TH-57 training helicopters.

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) anticipates awarding a single firm-fixed-price contract for a total procurement of 130 commercial aircraft through a base and up to four options. Contract award is anticipated in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Plans are to start buying new trainers in fiscal 2020 and have the entire TH-57 fleet divested by 2023.