The Next Wave

Two U. S. Military Helicopter Projects Try to Avoid Past Pitfalls


Rendering of Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant


The U.S. military wants cutting-edge choppers. Replacing its decades-old combat and cargo helicopters is a critical mission, so the Department of Defense is overseeing parallel initiatives to create a new generation of aircraft. Organizations are racing to develop new technology and build prototypes. The ultimate goal is the introduction of a new fleet of advanced helicopters through the military's Future Vertical Lift initiative, by the 2030s.

The prototypes have started to arrive. One has come out of a partnership between Sikorsky and Boeing, while another is from Bell. Bell's V-280 Valor, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but also can fly like a conventional propeller aircraft, completed its first test flight in December. The Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant, built to travel faster, longer and more quietly than other models of its size, is expected to complete a similar pilot project later this year. Ultimately, the military could select one or both of the prototypes for production—or it could send those organizations back to the drawing board.

Project teams are drawing on lessons learned from past U.S. military-sponsored helicopter projects, including some that were plagued with problems (see “Staying Grounded” on page 7). Bell, for instance, has over 400,000 flight hours with its earlier next-gen model, the V-22 Osprey, that it is leveraging on the V-280 project. “That is valuable operational and test data for informing our aircraft's design for affordability, reliability and performance,” says Ryan Ehinger, director and program manager, V-280 Valor, Bell, Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

For Bell's V-280 endeavor, the team is keeping a close eye on project milestones. “We have constant reviews of our integrated master schedule so that we can track progress to all our milestones,” Mr. Ehinger says. “The integrated schedule ensures that each team member knows how their deliverable—whether it's an engineering design, a release of a purchase order or a manufactured part—can ultimately affect major program milestones.”

The goal is for the team to understand links in the schedule so that a one-week delay in year one doesn't get absorbed and become a one-week delay in year five. “When the team is aligned and focused on achieving milestones, everyone can see where the strains are occurring and work together to make sure that the critical path to our milestones is unaffected.”


“When the team is aligned and focused on achieving milestones, everyone can see where the strains are occurring.”

—Ryan Ehinger, Bell, Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Built-In Challenges

The manufacturing process for these new demonstrator projects presents new kinds of challenges compared to previous military mainstay models like the Black Hawk or Apache. “Developing, maturing and demonstrating this new technology is both a benefit of our project and its greatest challenge,” says Rich Koucheravy, business development director, Sikorsky, Future Vertical Lift, Washington, D.C., USA.

Dedicated assembly lines were built to produce parts for those helicopters for decades, but the production of parts for the Defiant demonstrator “is done in some areas with tooling that already existed,” Mr. Koucheravy says. “We then have to modify our manufacturing procedures to produce a small number of components in a way that might not be the most efficient.”

The ability to execute complex part designs with a high degree of manufacturability also will be pivotal, says Anurag Garg, director of aerospace and defense for PwC's Strategy&, New Delhi, India. “For example, designers can minimize parts, use standardized parts across the platform or use less expensive materials,” he says.

To that end, the Sikorsky-Boeing team is using automated manufacturing techniques throughout the design phase, including in areas such as automatic fiber placement, digital sand casting and additive manufacturing. The team also is drawing on digital design techniques, including virtual reality, to reduce manufacturing complexity.

“The art lies in balancing product development with a focus on inherent cost reduction upfront, rather than pursuing those two agendas sequentially,” Mr. Garg says. —Kate Rockwood

Staying Grounded

The last time the U.S. government tried to upgrade its helicopter fleet, massive schedule delays and cost overruns beset two major projects.


Takeaway: A joint effort from Bell and Boeing launched in 1983, the tilt-rotor aircraft saw its costs balloon from US$68.7 million to US$56 billion by 2012, with the cost per unit estimated at US$100 million, according to Fortune and Popular Mechanics. It was also dangerous: During testing from 1991 to 2000, the Osprey crashed four times in noncombat operations, causing 30 fatalities.



Takeaway: With hopes of creating the first stealth-centric combat helicopter in the world, the U.S. government awarded a contract to Boeing-Sikorsky in 1991. By 2004, the entire project was canceled after six program reconstructions and US$6.9 billion spent. Part of the reason: It was unclear if the engine would be powerful enough to get the helicopter off the ground.




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