Keith Flail, the vice president for advanced vertical lift systems at Bell, a Textron company, discusses development of the V-280 Valor tiltrotor demonstrator and the US Army’s requirements for the Capability Set 3 of the Future Vertical Lift program 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.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Nashville, Tennessee covering the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference and trade show, the number one gathering of U.S. Army aviators from around the world gathering here to talk technology, budgets, strategy, and more with their industry counterparts, fellow service members, international as well as media. Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS, and we’re here on the Bell stand to talk to Keith Flail who is the Vice President for Advanced Tilt Rotor Systems at Bell.
You’ve got the V-280 in your portfolio which is going very, very well. You have the V-247 also that’s in your portfolio, although we’re not going to be talking about that. Full disclosure, Bell also sponsors the weekly Defense and Aerospace Report Podcast.
So Keith, give us a little bit of a sense on how you guys make that 2028 target. We heard the Vice Chief of the Army, General McConville today, who’s going to be the future Chief of Staff of the United States Army, very, very clearly say the four customers for this airplane, and he wants IOC on it — 101st, 160thAviation Regiment, the Special Operations Command, as well as the National Guard to have this capability by 2028.
You guys have had over the last year a very successful flight test program, but how do you make that, you know, in the event that you’re successful in winning the Cap Set 3 contract, walk us through the schedule and how you guys are going to be able to deliver an airplane in 2028, because that is a very, very aggressive target that’s only nine years away.
Keith Flail: The opportunity here, since we’ve been on this joint multi-role journey which is a United States government/industry partnership, so it’s been over six years now, reducing risk and informing requirements for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. So we’re in an incredible position right now. Arguably, in the best position never for a rotor craft type of program in terms of what’s been done, what’s been accomplished under this science and technology effort.
Because of the risk we’ve been able to burn down and how much more we know about this capability and the proof that we’ve been able to bring, so now well over a year into flight test with the achievements that we’ve had, getting over 300 knots of airspeed, proving out the low speed and the high speed agility, over 100 flight hours of tests, and really wringing out the early stages of reliability and maintainability on the aircraft, we know so much more. So the position to launch the program of record, we are in a very, very good spot. So when you look at 2028, we’re in 2019 right now, being able to get into an accelerated acquisition, prove out the remaining capabilities and shore up things in the design that are not on the ones flying right now and get ourselves to a limited user test and all the testing that’s required and get the initial key personnel training, all the things on that road to get our first unit equipped by 2028, we believe it is absolutely achievable because of everything that we’ve been able to do. The reality is, between industry and government overall in this joint multi-role effort, you have a billion dollar investment over six-plus years. So you have a six-year head start on this entire thing. So 2028, it may seem a little bit intimidating, but it’s really not when you look how far we’ve come since we began this program together.
Mr. Muradian: It’s certainly going to be something that’s going to be interesting to watch, given that Cap Set 1 now is a priority, and they’re setting a very, very ambitious target of roughly 42 months ahead. So that’s going to be very, very interesting. A least you guys have this behind you, and airplanes are already flying, right? Whether it’s you guys or the Boeing [flying] guys are on that.
Let’s talk a little bit about the cost. $43 million is the target price. That’s one of the KPPs on the program. This is a lot of airplane for $43 million. Talk to us a little bit about whether you guys are going to make that target, and if so, how.
Mr. Flail: The government, the Army just put out the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, the request for information. Within that it had an Army section, it had a United States Marine Corps section as well as a Special Operations Command section. As we looked at that RFI and turned that response in one week. So I think it was great to see that the government is moving at such a quick pace for this program.
So with that RFI response, within there as you mentioned to me, they put a $43 million average unit manufacturing cost was the target. We absolutely are below the $43 million mark with this capability. Understanding at the same time there is still some ambiguity in the requirements. That’s why they put the RFI out, so that we could comment on the different performance attributes that they were looking for feedback on. But it’s very encouraging to me to see how it shows up in terms of a requirement, a threshold and objective, kind of setting the goal post for what they need, and being able to provide that feedback so when they go to put out the draft Request for Proposal, we’ll see the next round of this. So this iterative process with industry I think is really valuable, so they can set the requirements in terms of the art of the achievable, which helps get at that first unit equipped and that Army of 2028 capability that we talked about before.
Mr. Muradian: In the RFI was there, and I apologize for not having taken a look at it in advance, but was there enough commonality among all of these types, because historically when you look at the Marine Corps aircraft, the Marine Corps has a whole bunch of very, very unique and separate requirements; Special Operations Command layers their own things on; and sometimes everybody wants to be different for the sake of being different as opposed to saying look, what do we really need in terms of the commonality of this program? Is there enough commonality there? And are the differences something that have been purposefully minimized to actually help you execute a very complicated program quickly?
Mr. Flail: That’s great question. I think what’s been really great from my perspective is watching the services. The Army, the Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command as they’ve worked through the analysis of alternatives process, and looking at the trades and the commonality. So what degree of commonality can you achieve with these unique requirements?
The Army section of the RFI laid out their base requirements. Our understanding is currently the acquisition strategy looks like an Army lead, then followed by the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command. Then they laid out the United States Marine Corps unique requirements; then the Special Operations Command unique requirements. So we were able to comment with the requirements. And you really look at kind of a compliance matrix with these thresholds and these objectives that they laid out in terms of what they’re looking at for speed and range and payload. We went through them and color coded like blue where we exceeded the requirement; green where we complied with the requirement; and then some yellows we highlighted just as challenges to let them know that if you turn this knob on your mission profile and you do this maneuver it has a hover in ground effect as opposed to a hover out of ground effect when you start the mission, you may be able to save some money and drive greater commonality between the platforms. So that’s a lot of the goodness in the process with this RFI, is we were able to comment and give them some good feedback for consideration as they lay out the requirements to maximize that commonality you talked about between the platforms so you don’t have extremely unique configurations between the three and make them as common as possible while still meeting all of their requirements.
Mr. Muradian: Everybody acknowledges the attributes of tilt rotor. I remember when the U.S. Army was considering it when the Marine Corps was bringing them on in the early ‘90s. There were those in the Army who were saying look, it’s really great, but the cost per flying hour’s going to kill us. That perception still persists, even though the V-22 has proven its doubters wrong. It’s a combat capable platform, it works fine. It has quite a lot of agility, even though people talk about the agility part of it. I think you guys work with a lot more control authority in terms of the flapping you guys can put in there to get that kind of agility into the system.
Talk to us about what you’re demonstrating in terms of what your real cost per flying hour is, because cost per flying hours and maintainability and reliability figures, because the Army has made that abundantly clear, that we actually want as much capability as we can for the lowest cost per flying hour as we possibly can as well, and the greatest and easiest sustainability in the field.
Mr. Flail: That’s a great question. When you talk about cost per flight hour and you’re talking about a tilt rotor, you really, you have to look at it very, very differently compared to a typical edge-wise rotor craft.
One of the things, when you talk about cost per flight hour, what are you accomplishing within that hour? You really have to look at this difference.
The Marine Corps’ looked at lot with tilt rotor at cost per seat mile, cost per pound per mile. I mean when you look at those kind of things we absolutely are the best thing out there that you can get, because you get the best of a helicopter and you get the best of an airplane. You’re able to ride on the wing, when you get into cruise mode you’re able to slow the motors down and you sip gas. So that’s how you get that incredible range on the aircraft and the speed you get out of a tilt rotor. Twice the speed, twice the range, and what that means in terms of cost of operations when you’re able to have that kind of operational productivity across the battlefield.
So you really have to look at cost a little bit different when you talk about this from an operational productivity standpoint and not just measure the typical cost per flight hour.
To make it even a little more complex, we’ve had some engagements here today, when you talk about cost per flight hour the way the Air Force does it, the way the Marine Corps does it, the way the Army does it, they compute them differently. So when folks throw those numbers around, you really have to get in and dissect those numbers to understand what are you getting out of the asset per hour when you look at what it’s doing? Look at Afghanistan as an example. You could execute missions in Afghanistan with tilt rotor platforms with one forward operating base in the center of the nation, as opposed to all of the assembly areas you have to have that are like that because of the range limitations of helicopters. So every time you put an aviation unit on the ground you’ve got to put the force protection in place, you’ve got to put the forward arming and refueling points in place. So you really have to back up on this cost question and really look at what does it mean in terms of the speed and range and what that does for combat operations for the ground maneuver commander.
Mr. Muradian: That’s absolutely the case, and we should say the Navy, right, decided to go to the V-22 as its future carrier on-board delivery capability to replace the C-2 Greyhound which was a conventional airplane in order to have not the hub and spoke system now where the COD flies cargo over to the carrier and then you helicopter it out, but then actually the V-22 can go to the big deck amphibs and all the other ships in a formation as well.
But talk to us a little bit about what you’re demonstrating in terms of your cost per flying hour on this system given that you guys put an enormous amount of investment in to learn from the lessons of the V-22, to try to take as much operating cost and ease that maintenance, and also ease manufacture as well, right? You guys don’t have dihedral and there’s a whole bunch of things that you guys did on that.
So talk to us a little bit about what you’re demonstrating in terms of what your cost of flying hour is and how that significantly, you know, how much less is it, for example, than a V-22 comparably?
Mr. Flail: A great question. The one thing about whenever the government goes to measure a mission reliability or availability, when you’re a new system it becomes a proof campaign. So the challenge there is you want a certain level of availability and reliability, but you have to go and execute and accumulate enough data to know that you’re actually meeting your targets or exceeding your targets to get to the numbers that you’re looking at for those maintenance free operating periods.
What we’ve seen with the V-280 and the 100-plus flight hours of flight tests and the experience we’ve had so far is a very, very good indication in terms of the big hitters for operations and support costs when you look at rotor craft, it’s gear boxes and blades. Those are the things that impact you the most. So far on our blades and our gear boxes we’ve seen incredible performance. A lot of that is due to some of the new design techniques that we have put into place. Some of our off-board testing that we’ve done before getting to the aircraft. And when you look at the V-22, as you mentioned, currently on the V-22 about 60 percent of the maintenance occurs in the nacelle areas, which would make sense because that’s where all the dynamic components are and the magic of tilt rotor is. So knowing that, we really focused on the maintainability and the accessibility within those nacelles of how we laid things out, the configurations, really thinking about line replaceable units, how are we going to do this, how are we going to access the engine, how are you going to get at a gear box? So a lot of things in terms of how we designed and built the V-280 really, really focus with the design for maintainability as well as the initial design for manufacturing.
First of all, you want to fundamentally build it cheaper; and then once you have it in the inventory, what are you going to do to maintain it? So there’s the physical layout of the aircraft and how you get at things; the improved reliability because we have so much more knowledge, because we get to stand on the shoulders of V-22 and we have all those flight hours, 450,000 plus flight hours, all those lessons learned, applying that into a clean sheet design. Now we can really optimize tilt rotor for this next cycle of learning.
So it’s a combination of all those things that we’re talking about, easing the maintainability, driving in greater inherent reliability into the components that you have, and then you couple that with the digital thread. This entire aircraft being designed in the digital thread, so everything matches. So the precision of the parts when you go to build the aircraft; the environment that you have that the government and industry can be together; your training publications, training your pilots, training your maintainers. Everything leverages that one central data source and you’re able to do it in a 3D environment. So you’re enhancing every knob that you can turn that’s related to sustainability, we’ve attacked every single one of those to provide the best affordable and sustainable package that we can to the warfighter while still delivering that revolutionary leap in capability.
Mr. Muradian: Keith Flail, the Vice President for Advanced Future Vertical Lift Systems here at Bell. Thanks very much. Best of luck on the program, and hopefully we’re going to see you down in sunny Texas and actually get to touch and smell the airplane in the aluminum.
Mr. Flail: Some see us any time. Thanks so much, Vago.
Mr. Muradian: Thank you.