The U.S. Army has selected Bell's V-280 Valor tiltrotor as the basis for the design that will replace the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as its next Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). In a decision announced on December 5, the Textron subsidiary prevailed in the long-running competition against the Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant propulsor-compound coaxial rotor design based on Sikorsky's X-2 technology program.
The FLRAA program was designed to produce aircraft to eventually replace up to 4,000 Sikorsky Black Hawks. Bell started developing and testing the V-280 Valor next-generation tiltrotor as part of the Pentagon's Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) program that began in 2013.
The initial production aircraft are expected to be operational by 2030 and the entire program could have a value of up to $80 billion. The most recently announced target price per V-280 (2018) is $43 million. The announced development contract is valued at $232 million and covers the final design of the production prototype aircraft and any changes specified by the Army, including weapon system design, sustainment, digital enterprise, manufacturing, systems integration, flight testing, and airworthiness qualification.
“This is an exciting time for the U.S. Army, Bell, and Team Valor as we modernize the Army’s aviation capabilities for decades to come,” said Bell president and CEO Mitch Snyder, president and CEO of Bell. The award is a potential financial bonanza for Bell and guarantees its continuation as U.S. military long-term rotorcraft supplier.
A Bell/Boeing team currently produces the larger V-22 tiltrotor for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, but that aircraft is currently nearing the end of its production cycle after manufacturing more than 400 units. The smaller V-280 significantly differs from the V-22 tiltrotor in several respects. On the V-22, the engines, gearboxes, and prop-rotors all have to rotate as the thrust direction is changed; on the V-280 only the gearboxes and prop-rotors rotate. The V-280 also eschews the forward wing sweep of the V-22.
Going to a straight wing on the V-280 eliminates the need for a mid-wing gearbox and makes the wing easier to manufacture, according to Bell. The V-280 also is significantly more agile with about 50 percent more flapping capability in its rotor system than the V-22, enabling greater agility in all axes—longitudinal, lateral, and vertical.
Before being retired in 2021, the V-280 demonstration aircraft flew 214 hours over three years. During testing the V-280 achieved a maximum forward speed of 305 knots and demonstrated a combat range of 500 to 800 nm, a self-deployment range of 1,734 nm, low-speed agility, and rapid mission systems integration. It was flown by both Bell test pilots and U.S. Army experimental test pilots.
Bell successfully flew the V-280 with a new tactical common data link (TCDL) and completed external sling load sorties. With onboard sensors and TCDL, the V-280 could provide targeting information to enhance the lethality of precision long-range weapons. The V-280 also transmitted data collected by the Lockheed Martin Pilotage Distributed Aperture Sensor (PDAS) system.
The V-280 and the SB-1 were semifinalists in the Army’s FLRAA competition and the Sikorsky-Boeing team is expected to file a protest.
Officially reacting to the award, Sikorsky issued a statement that read, in part, "We remain confident Defiant X is the transformational aircraft the U.S. Army requires to accomplish its complex mission today and well into the future. We will evaluate our next steps after reviewing feedback from the Army."
However, compared to the V-280, the SB-1 Defiant lagged in demonstrated forward speed and a refined version under development, the Defiant X, has yet to fly.
Bell and Sikorsky remain in competition for the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program.