Bell needs significantly more investment by the Army in its Future Vertical Lift program or parent company Textron [TXT] may be forced to pull funding from the advanced tiltrotor development effort, according to Chief Executive Scott Donnelly.
The V-280 Valor celebrated the first anniversary of its first flight Dec. 18 and it was announced Jan. 24 the aircraft had amassed 85 flight hours and reached the 280-knots true airspeed mark for which it was named.
During an earnings call the same day, Donnelly praised the program, but said its future is tightly coupled to the Army’s upcoming fiscal 2020 budget.
“It’ll affect our pace a lot,” Donnelly said of the upcoming budget. “We have no insight into what the [PB-20] looks like at this stage of the game … At this point, look, we’ll have no choice but to roll back any funding that we put into it, waiting to see what the Army is going to do, because we’ve done what we can do.”
Bell is “excited” to continue demonstrating the Valor’s aerobatic agility and other capabilities, as it has done for Army officials, the media and local and federal lawmakers, Donnelly said.
The V-280 is one of two prototypes participating in the Army’s ongoing Joint Multi-role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program. The other is the Sikorsky/Boeing [BA] SB-1 Defiant, which employs two coaxial rigid rotors for lift and a variable-pitch pusher prop for airplane-like speed, but has not flown. JMR-TD is meant to demonstrate technologies that will inform development of aircraft in the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program that eventually should replace all the Army’s rotorcraft. Sikorsky is a business of Lockheed Martin [LMT].
Both of those aircraft are sized to satisfy what the Army initially called Cap Set 3, a Black Hawk-like utility and assault aircraft. It is now called the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program, or FLRAA. Sikorsky is currently flying the scaled-down version of the Defiant, called the S-97 Raider, which is aimed more at FVL Cap Set 1, now called the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). FARA would fill the role once played by the OH-58D Kiowa warrior and not necessarily replace the AH-64E Apache that is currently flying armed scout missions.
AVX Aircraft has teamed with L3 Technologies [LLL] to propose a FARA design and Bell CEO Mitch Snyder in October dropped the news that the company was also in the running. Both companies have submitted sealed proposals for the program, but neither design has been made public.
FVL, and JMR-TD by association, is third on the list of the Army’s most important modernization programs. It established the new four-star Futures Command around those priorities to protect them from becoming expensive developmental flameouts like the RAH-66 Comanche that ate up about $7 billion before being summarily canceled in 2004.
Army budget plans are to fund FVL research-and-development to the tune of $2.4 billion over the next five years, so at least in the current Five Year Defense Plan, funding is available.
Donnelly said the Army’s seeming commitment to those specific programs is encouraging and that some in the Army have been clear they are a modernization priority. Formal requests for proposals for both FARA and FLRAA are in the offing, as is a downselect for JMR-TD, which could lead directly into FVL, or simply advertise the Army’s preference in configuration.
“We would certainly hope to hear shortly, to start to see that — those statements turn into some contracted work,” Donnelly said. “We’ve now exceeded 280 knots. I think our team has done everything we’ve asked of them to design and build a terrific aircraft … So it’s sort of debunked all these notions that a tiltrotor product can’t have the maneuverability of a more conventional aircraft, the speed now going through and then breaking through that 280 knot performance envelope. This thing does everything and more than it was expected to do.”