The Army is now in the second phase of the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) Competitive Demonstration and Risk Reduction program, the zenith of which will be the selection of a next-generation transport to help the Army deter and fight in multi-domain environments.
In this Q&A, we discuss the flight characteristics of Bell’s V-280 Valor and how the Army can deploy the aircraft’s range, speed, and agility in support of Army missions with Bell’s Ryan Ehinger, vice president and program director, FLRAA Future Long Range Assault Aircraft/V-280 Valor, and Frank Lazzara, director, Advanced Vertical Lift Systems, Sales and Strategy, who flew V-22s for Air Force’s Special Operations Command.
Breaking Defense: How did you view performance requirements for the V-280 in its early design phase?
Ehinger: When we set out to create a clean-sheet design for the Army air-assault mission we took lessons learned from 600,000 hours of V-22 experience and tailored them toward air assault. We focused on speed, range, payload, reliability, survivability, and agility, as well. You need all those things and more to be successful in that mission.
Flight performance is important when you’re developing a new air vehicle. We’re extremely proud of the fact that early in the design stage we created digital models and used analytical tools to make predictions that matched what our aircraft achieved in flight test. It can be a hugely difficult step to make the transition from digital models into flight performance, which is reflected in the history of many other configurations.
For V-280, we’ve overcome both first-generation challenges and those transition challenges from the digital models. We’ve wrung those out in our V-280 flight-test program with almost 215 hours of flight time. We’ve knocked out a lot of these proof points in flight, demonstrating speed, range, the ability to do sling load operations or fast-rope deployment, as well as low-speed agility.
Of course, we recognize that the CH-47 also fills the role of providing sling-load capability. Our focus was on providing transformational long-range assault and we executed the performance elements of the FLRAA mission set that the Army has expressed as being important for its success.
The other critical piece is the aircraft’s air-vehicle and mission-systems digital backbone. The Army is telling industry what right looks like and we are listening. The key here for us is creating an infrastructure that provides the Army the freedom to control their own destiny and ensure competition and affordability in the future. We are not trying to force a pre-existing solution that over-constrains the Army in the long term.
Breaking Defense: The FLRAA mission is mainly about reach and long range at speed, which is why it’s aptly named the long-range assault aircraft. What specifically does the V-280 bring to the table in this respect?
Ehinger: There is no other configuration that has the efficient range and speed of a tiltrotor. I think that is a differentiator for a future long-range assault aircraft. Speed is obviously an enabler for reducing the infrastructure that’s required for the armed forces in support of medevac and in amassing soldiers in periods of darkness. Speed is very important for general survivability of the platform.
Another aspect that folks don’t talk about enough in terms of having a speed advantage is cost savings. The reality is that if you’re able to execute a mission in half the time, you’re putting half the flight hours on an aircraft.
When you look at calculating the cost to execute missions in terms of dollars-per-flight hour you’re executing those missions in half the time, which is a significant improvement in the cost and in the affordability of executing these missions. So, whether you’re flying twice as fast as the enduring fleet or you’re flying 75 knots faster than a competing technology, speed matters in terms of being able to generate lifecycle and mission affordability.
Breaking Defense: Are those actual performance numbers? I know sometimes we all speak in hyperbole and I’m wondering if that’s a true figure?
Ehinger: Yes, they are, and you’re right to point that out. Here are the facts. We’ve actually demonstrated 305 knots in level flight. So, I would say we are truly and uniquely twice as fast as the enduring fleet. Everyone wants to focus on speed because the benefits are so apparent.
Breaking Defense: Rightly or wrongly, I’ve heard people say that higher-speed aircraft sacrifice low-speed agility at the landing zone. Your thoughts?
Lazzara: The narrative that says we’re giving up low-speed agility at the X and several other references to what happens on the objective is completely false. We’re providing more than the required performance without sacrificing anything in other regimes.
And, importantly, that performance is provided most efficiently from a tiltrotor on a wing. One of the things we set out to do very early was demonstrate the low-speed agility of the V-280. We did that. We generated the flight data and the engineering data to validate our models.
You can push anything through the air if you put enough thrust to it, but doing it efficiently with room for growth is a different story. You get a better result with the efficient performance of a tiltrotor. That’s a big discriminator that often gets lost in the discussion.
And let me emphasize the opposite, which is the high-speed agility question. You can maneuver in terrain flight much more aggressively and quietly on a wing with the envelope of energy you get in a tiltrotor versus relying on a configuration where part of your thrust solutions, at least, is also your lifter.
That’s what happens with edgewise rotary wing flight. Even if you have an additional thruster, you’re still relying on the rotor over your head, the edgewise system, to provide both lift and some thrust. Conversely, when evading threats for example in a tiltrotor, the energy you have available to put into that maneuver far exceeds anything else I’ve seen or experienced in my career. That’s without giving up any low-speed or hovering capability when I’m on the objective.
Breaking Defense: The desired-for speed and range of FLRAA will also play into the Great Power competition and Joint All-Domain Command and Control. How does V-280 address that?
Lazzara: If you don’t have the legs and the speed to get to an objective from a standoff location, or relative sanctuary, then you’re not going to be the force selected to prosecute a target because you don’t have the assets with the capability to get you there.
Without being able to close on an objective or exploit temporary domain dominance with both speed and range, you become less relevant. Every one of our services has a very relevant role in the overall calculus for providing credible deterrence. None of us really want to go to war. You want to avoid war. There are a lot of tools to do that and one of them is the strength of the military, but if you don’t come from a position of strength through capability then you don’t have a credible argument.
Here’s something else to think about. I was deck qualified as both an MH-53 pilot and a CV-22 pilot. I can tell you that in the tiltrotor, I had far fewer concerns flying over water for hours on end, including two trans-Atlantic flights that I did in a CV-22. In the -53, going three hours out over the ocean, flying to a deck, and then conducting operations from the ship comes with its own set of risks. What’s going to go wrong? Am I going to have to ditch, how far is my divert? That’s the way helicopter pilots must think when flying over water.
The comfort and survivability of flying on a wing shouldn’t be underestimated. The single-engine capability in a tiltrotor using the benefits of a wing is far greater and far less stressful than it is in a helicopter. Those are the tangible things that don’t often get discussed because it is still a relatively small number of people have the experience in both technologies to compare them from a technical and tactical perspective.
Breaking Defense: Final thoughts?
Lazzara: We have hit the sweet spot on this aircraft configuration. We don’t have to focus on a single strength because we don’t compromise performance in any category to achieve performance in another. Obviously, this is a competition and we hear different narratives. Don’t be fooled, the truth is that we haven’t compromised in any one regime to deliver capability in another. Any dollar spent on this technology gets you more than the same dollar spent on less mature technologies.
I recently read an article in which our competitor stated that the V-280 could only win in a drag race. I chuckled at that because the V-280 is exceptionally maneuverable in this aircraft category and equally as important, it actually reaches objective areas that no other configuration will reach because of its unique ability to fly long ranges efficiently. You can claim that you are more maneuverable but if you can’t range the objective, I’m not sure what value that adds to the maneuver force’s overmatch calculus.
That being said, I’ll emphasize that this tiltrotor has proven and demonstrated that it has the agility required. We’ve actually demonstrated (in flight) attitude quickness rates that show the built-in capability to achieve Level 1 handling qualities for exceptional low-speed maneuverability. We may actually have to dial down capability because there’s more built into this design than pilots will need. That built-in capability ensures future growth without sacrificing performance.
The myth that we’re giving up low-speed agility for high-speed straight and level is a complete fabrication. Lost in the low-speed conversation is the high-speed maneuverability and the tactical advantage and survivability that provides. When you’re flying a tiltrotor on a wing and need to maneuver aggressively, you can turn that thing on its side and pull and you displace from threat very quickly while still retaining a positive energy state. You don’t have to worry about stressing the main rotor masts or maintaining rotor disc separation. The tiltrotor is the most efficient design for combining high speed and low speed maneuvering with achieving the increased ranges required to stay relevant and doing so efficiently.
So sure, we’d win a drag race but we are also the team that has demonstrated both very high speed and exceptional low-speed agility through a highly successful flight test program and not solely through modelling. We demonstrated it in flight, we don’t just talk about it.
I also want to touch on the footprint myth that we’ve heard our competitor message about. The V-280 fits in the same existing infrastructure as the current fleet. A great example of this is our recent demonstration of performing maintenance using the SCAMP II (Self-Propelled Crane Aircraft Maintenance and Positioning). We removed the gearboxes and engines from the V-280 using the existing SCAMP II system and we did that limiting ourselves to the dimensions of current Army aircraft hangars. I’ll add that given the work we’ve done on the design, sustainability and reliability, the V-280 Valor will spend less time in those hangars either way.
Although it surprises people when they realize that the V-280 fits in the same basic footprint as the Blackhawk, it does. Worth noting is the advantage of the V-280 configuration where you don’t have a helicopter’s rotor system hanging out over the front of the aircraft so you actually have more clearance in front and it makes landing in close proximity to other aircraft less stressful. A great example of this is operations on the deck of the ship. You are tucked in there tight, nose to tail when landing on a ship but the tiltrotor’s configuration actually makes that easier.
Ehinger: Echoing that. We’ve shown that the V-280 could provide great value to the Army and meet their intent for a future long-range assault aircraft. We’re pleased that we didn’t have to compromise in any segment of the mission to achieve the transformational capability that they’re looking for.
There’s no other technology that has the pedigree of experience and demonstrated performance to address the specific Army air-assault mission. The V-280 tiltrotor configuration represents the fastest, most efficient, and most mature configuration that exists in the world for that mission by a significant margin.
No Compromises: Tiltrotor Mission Effectiveness For Long-Range Air Assault – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Barry Rosenberg for breakingdefense.com