Mitch Snyder, the president and CEO of Bell, a Textron company, discusses the company’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor development program, US Army Aviation requirements for future scout and long-range lift aircraft, and efforts to reinvent personal aerial mobility with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Army Aviation Association of America’s 2019 conference and tradeshow in Nashville, Tenn., where our coverage was sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS. Bell also sponsors our weekly Defense & Aerospace Report podcasts.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Nashville, Tennessee at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference and trade show, the number one gathering of U.S. Army aviators and indeed Army aviators from around the planet here to talk to each other, to talk strategy, budgets, technology and more with industry, thought leaders and media. Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS, and we’re honored to have with us the President and CEO of Bell, Mitch Snyder.
Mitch, good to see you. I’m sorry I’m a little hoarse. I’m coming off of a little bit of a cold.
Obviously a lot of messages that are going on, but the most powerful message for you is actually looking at the budget to see what it contained. A lot of ambitious talk from Army leadership about the future of Army aviation modernization.
Talk to us a little bit about some of the messages you’re hearing not just here, but what some of the budget documents tell you about where the Army wants to go.
Mitch Snyder: First of all the message is, you’ve heard, the Future of Vertical Lift is number three on their priority list. And when we’ve talked to the Army it’s two assets. It’s the Future Vertical Lift Cap. Set 1 or the Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, as well as the Long Range Assault Aircraft, Cap. Set 3. So the Army continues to tell us that both are important, we need both first unit equipped by 2028. So when you hear from the Army, Army’s Futures Command, it’s saying we need both as soon as possible.
Now the good thing is, 1’s had a head start. The one behind us, the V-280 for the JMRTD program has been working since 2013. We’ve been flying it since ’17. We had one great year of flying this last year, 100 hours of flight tests now, 200 operational hours, and we hit 300 knots. So that capability is mature and ready to go into the next level of acquisition. So we think we’re primed and ready to go. And the Army seems to be responding to that. We did have a request for information come out last week which we provided our input to. And of course we’ve also responded to the proposal on the attack reconnaissance aircraft.
So they are moving out with both. They’re saying they’re doing both.
Now to your question on the budget, you look at the budget, it’s definitely heavily in there for the FARA aircraft, or the Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, but there is budget to get started on the Long Range Assault Aircraft.
So we’re looking forward, and we keep hearing from them that the bigger budget’s going to show up in ’21. But this is the year, ‘19s the year that we’re going to really be focused on Long Range Assault Aircraft, and we saw it with the RFI last week.
Mr. Muradian: And are you guys comfortable with the RFI and what’s in there? Are you letting them know what you would change given that that’s part of the discussion process?
Mr. Snyder: Well, it’s part of the process, right? So they had the requirements in there. And again, they’ve also said hey, what can you do in these areas, and can you go faster? If you can go faster, how? So we did respond to all those. Look at the range requirements, speed requirements. We’re very happy with the way the aircraft, or at least the way the RFI is looking towards what our aircraft is capable to do.
Mr. Muradian: Is there a little bit of concern, though, on your part? You guys are making an enormous investment. You’re making an enormous investment in this, the V-280, in the 247, other parts of the Textron family have done Scorpion which was an investment that so far has gone unrewarded. I could see that from a Scott Donley standpoint, sitting at the senior-most levels of Textron, saying look, we’re investing in all of this capability. Ellen Lord, who is now the Acquisition Executive at the Pentagon made enormous investments in her division in order to create capabilities and roll them out to the customer.
The longer range requirement was something that was very important to the Army, but now there’s a lot more focus on the [KSAT-1] requirement. And you guys at least have a lead on some of these other programs. They’re looking at 42 months with airplanes that haven’t yet flown, at least on one of the sites. I think the L3 airplane hasn’t flown yet, although I think the Raider has.
As you look at this, is there clarity in terms of the schedules? Because there’s this push/pull between the readiness side of the equation and modernization. Are you sure that the plans that the Army has forged are actually going to hang together here, given that you guys are making a considerable investment and every year a program slips is something that’s an impact for you guys.
Mr. Snyder: So far right now they have. Right? They’ve said these capability sets are important, the Futures Command has said we’re moving on them both. At the senior levels of the Army they’ve said it’s number three on the priority list.
So when you look at it, yeah, it’s being funded. Again, JMRTD was a head start for the Capability Set 3 or the Long Range Assault Aircraft. So there’s already been, that’s in work. I think they’re really trying to jumpstart the Capability Set 1 or the Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft right now. But they’ve said that’s what we’re doing. We’re going to jumpstart it, then we’re going to move towards the next level because we already have two flying aircraft for the Capability Set 3.
So what we’re seeing from them is we’re going to get the money in here this year, get going as fast as we can on attack reconnaissance. And by the way, we have a great aircraft that we’re going to provide to them in that proposal, and we look to compete very hard and win that one as well. But yeah, as far as the commitment we made on V-280, we did that on the JMRTD program and the money’s going to show up. I think it was very important we saw the RFI come out this past week. They’ve told us there’s going to be an RFP coming out this fall. And then ’21 is the year that you’re going to see the big budget increase. So you saw it in ’20 for the Capability Set 1, and now you’re going to see it the next year for the Capability Set 3.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to the performance of the airplane. Three hundred knots is pretty good for something that can land and take off as a helicopter and fly as an airplane. What are some of the key things you’re learning in this test program, and what are going to be some of the other things we’re going to see over the next couple of months as you guys try to ring out the full dimension of the flight outlook?
Mr. Snyder: I think what you’ve seen, and it’s tilt rudder, right? So we really designed it for the 6k95 mission and when you bring the rotors forward you get the speed that we’re after. Again, we’re very pleased with hitting 300 knots. But I can tell you one of our focuses was, for the Army, was more what they call action at the objective, or the agility at the X. So that’s one thing I think we’ve been really pleased with is we really put additional flapping into this aircraft, additional control of the aircraft, and we’ve really been able to demonstrate some extreme accelerations in yaw and pitch and roll to demonstrate level one handling qualities. And I think you’ve seen from the videos, the aircraft is extremely agile.
So we’re going to continue to expand that envelope. But just seeing the 300 knots, great in translation, and then also see that agility’s been important.
We just recently installed the PDAS System, the Distributed Aperture System, and we’ve been flying that with our partners Lockheed Martin to show that off. In fact you can get in the back of this aircraft and actually see some of the real flying with the PDAS System.
Of course one thing I’ve mentioned that we have been focused on is it is operationally piloted. It could be fully autonomous. The aircraft is designed that way. In December I was actually able to get in our Systems Integration Lab and they let me push a button, I pushed a button in the lab and the aircraft flew a 20 minute autonomous mission with me in it. This is the same software that we’re maturing.
So before the end of the year we’ll be able to, we’ll have the pilot in the V-280, but the aircraft will be able to take off, fly a fully autonomous mission and land. So that’s what we’re excited about doing next.
So that will pretty much clear the envelope. We’re finishing up a few key performance parameters on the aircraft. But by end of the year we’ll pretty much have demonstrated everything we need to for JMRTD and we’re ready to go onto the next step.
Mr. Muradian: Let me talk to you a little bit about how you’re using the program to reinvent the company, to then reinvent mobility in order to then get into the commercial marketplace as well. So it’s really, really fascinating to watch this, because all of your processes, you’re changing your processes, you’re changing how you engineer and design an airplane, how you’re going to be building your airplane.
Talk to us about how this technology and as you mentioned about that autonomy, it goes to your air taxi concept. You announced that at the Consumer Electronics Show. We couldn’t be there, unfortunately, because we were at the Air Force Association annual show. But talk to us a little bit about how this airplane really is reinventing how you’re doing stuff and how that’s going to go right back into the commercial space.
Mr. Snyder: Sure. I think it kind of almost started in the commercial. If you think about our 525 aircraft, so it’s the first fly-by-wire commercial aircraft that we’re working on certification right now. So we started there, we leveraged some of those things out of that aircraft into this V-280 aircraft. So you see that what we were doing is leveraging that technology.
And you’re right. When I rebranded the company, I’ve said, you know, if you look at our history we’re not a helicopter company. We create amazing vertical lift experiences. We’re a technology company. And so I think that real hard focus on innovation and technology, as you see, from the 525 to the V-280 to behind me back here the V-247 that we’ve been working on for the Marine Corps for the Marine Unmanned Expeditionary, the MUX program, and the ap that’s sitting right beside it with a Tail City flyer logistics mover there, and then with Nexus which we did debut the Nexus at the Consumer Electronic Show.
All those you can see, this fly by wire autonomy, artificial intelligence, flight controls, sensors, all being integrated and we’re able to leverage that and really increase our cycles of learning and development that we had been lacking for a long time at Bell, that we’re back in this. We’re constantly inventing. So it’s been exciting to see us leverage different technologies and how it accelerates our development across the platforms. Whether it’s military or commercial, we’re leveraging both ways.
Mr. Muradian: From your standpoint, what’s the challenge being inside a very, very big company that has a lot of requirements. Obviously Textron is doing well. But are there some internal challenges sometimes in terms of making your case to your bosses, to Scott and conversely also I suspect for Scott making his case to the board?
Mr. Snyder: I think you look at where it’s at, it’s the opportune time, right? If you think about on the military side with all these Future Vertical Lift programs, the modernization. And it’s more broad than us. Textron Systems, our sister companies here when you’re looking at ammunition and weapons and with flight training. We’ve got it all here, right? So no, I think it’s a perfect time. You see everybody modernizing. I think that’s the biggest message everybody was waiting for. Is the modernization going to happen? Or is it going to get delayed and delayed and delayed? But I think their commitment to modernize, and you can see the fact that they moved so, you know, $30 billion into the end years to try and get this development done. I think that gives credibility to the board and to our leadership that we are investing in the right areas, and that it’s going to pay off.
And of course on the commercial side, we’re at the very beginning, right? I mean if you think about our cities, the urban areas, how congested they’ve got. We put subways in, we put runways, we’ve expanded the runways, we’ve put rail and you still have hours you’re sitting in traffic. And so there’s only one place to go and that’s up to the sky.
So when you look at where we’re at with urban air mobility, there’s a demand out there right now. So this is the perfect time to start. We said probably in the mid ‘20s, 2025 will be the time we can try and get one certified and start air mobility operations. So I think if you look, the demand coming from the consumer side and the demand on Future Vertical Lift, this is a great time, and it’s a pretty easy sell.
Mr. Muradian: Listen, given the traffic situation, if I could sign up as customer number one for your air taxi on a long-term lease basis, and you could give me a nice break on it, I’m happy to do that now actually.
Let me ask you one last question. The customer’s talking about changing, it’s using other transactional authorities, and all of these other different kinds of systems. The speed, how it does business. Hey, let’s take fresh approaches, let’s reduce requirements, but you still talk to people now, for example, that other transactional authority, there are so many things that are in the pipeline, that things are having to slow down because there’s too much in the pipeline. How are you seeing this change on the side of the customer? How is that working in terms of engaging with them and trying to get novel and new approaches to try to move the ball faster down the field?
Mr. Snyder: The great thing is, they are engaged with us. And it’s not just us, it’s all industry. They’re asking us, you know, how can you go faster? How can we do this together faster? So I think what we’ve seen not so much in the past but we do now, there’s a lot of collaboration going on on how you would do this, and I think this new creative approach, whether it’s other transactions or the MPAs as well, to try and get prototyping done. I think that’s one of the key things we’ve discussed is how do you go fast with the prototyping and really understand is the technology there? But secondly, if we get something invented and then get it in the hands of the users and they say, but this isn’t what I was really wanting. So you’d be able to go fast instead of going through the standard EMD process and the DoD 5000 process. By the time you get through and figure it out, there’s a lot of money been expended, and maybe it wasn’t really what they were targeting for capability. But I think the OTAs, all these different contractual authorizations that allow them to go fast. And we’re right at the beginning of it, so we’ll see. You can check with us later whether it all went through correctly. But they’re saying all the right things, we’re doing all the right things.
Just think about last week. We got an RFI and we had a few days to answer it. So it’s really, they are saying this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to go at speed, and they’re living up to that bargain.
Mr. Muradian: Is there, one last question, because a friend of mine mentioned this when they were looking at the Chinook decision. They said look, that was a priority. Why don’t we invest some money in it, developed the airplane, flew it, and now it will go to the 160th, but it may not be as big of a program, for example, as the initial — do you see that at all as a cautionary tale? Because that was something that also was a high priority. We need this for the future mobility of the Army. We need that kind of lift, payload, range capability. And now all of a sudden a program like that gets the brakes put on it.
Is that something that gives you pause as a CEO who’s making a lot of investment and putting a lot of bets down?
Mr. Snyder: Well, from what I see from them right now, they’re committed to Future Vertical Lift and modernization, and that’s where they seem to be putting their money. That’s what we’ve been investing in.
So we’re going to watch it as we go, but right now they’re committed to do what they say they’re doing, and like I said, it was real important last week for us on the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft to see that Request for Information come out. They’re saying a Request for Proposal is going to come out this fall for an OTA. And we’re anxiously awaiting those, and we believe what we’re seeing so far is they’re following through.
Mr. Muradian: Mitch Snyder, President and CEO of Bell. Sir, thanks very much. Absolute pleasure, always. I look forward to seeing you in Paris and then again at AUSA.
Mr. Snyder: Sounds good. I appreciate it. Always good to see you.