Mike Sousa, productive development manager at GE Aviation, discusses the company’s new T901 helicopter engines to replace the company’s T700 powerplants on UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters 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 sunny Nashville, Tennessee for the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference and trade show, the number one gathering of U.S. Army aviation leaders from around the world to talk strategy, budgets, technology, and more with industry, thought leaders and media. Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.
It’s our honor to talk with Retired United States Army Colonel Randy Rotte, who is the Director of Cargo, Business Development Director for Cargo Helicopters at Boeing. Sir, it’s always a pleasure seeing you. Obviously there’s a lot of news going on. You guys announced the first flight, successful first flight of the Defiant. That’s the partnership that you guys have with Sikorsky to go for the [Cap] Set 3 requirement of the Future Vertical Lift Program. The first flight was delayed a little bit, but very successful. Talk to us about what the delay taught you and about some of the information you gathered on the flight.
Randy Rotte: Sure thing, Vago, and great to see you, and a great introduction on this great show.
Very exciting on Defiant. Delivering capability to the warfighter. This new technology, this new capability to the Army. We had our first flight on March 21st, very exciting. How many times do you get a chance to participate in the first flight of an actual whole new design, new technology?
We’ve flown twice now. Third flight is imminent. Then we’ll start to expand that flight envelope all, again, to inform the Army on what’s possible and how they can make good decisions for the future to provide that capability and defend our nation’s interests around the world.
Mr. Muradian: How did you guys describe the delay? Everybody was looking forward to this having happened a little bit earlier. The V-280 guys have already been flying for a little more than a year and gathering a lot of steam on the program. What caused that delay as people expected it to happen a little bit sooner?
Mr. Rotte: Part of it is, I think one of the things you learn is when you’re really trying something new, when you’re inventing things, there are discoveries you make that your models, as good as they are, didn’t predict. And candidly, anything that kept us from flying earlier than we wanted, had very little if anything to do with the actual configuration. That compound coaxial liftoff set aircraft, tremendous capability. It was really about manufacturing and processes to build certain components.
So the good news of that is that learning then will translate very well as that aircraft goes into production, and now again, excited to see what it can do once we’re off in the air and flying fast.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit about what you see as the advantages of that coaxial compound system as you apply it to [Cap] Set 3, and what’s the rough kind of cargo speed envelope you guys are shooting for? Obviously that’s a key consideration for the Army.
Mr. Rotte: Sure. So I guess in the simplest terms I would characterize it as Defiant, or the X2 technology, is a helicopter that can go fast. Like airplane speeds. The beauty is, for the Army who lives in that low speed, actions on the objective environment, that low speed maneuverability, those things that make a helicopter a helicopter are not just preserved but actually enhanced ion this capability. Then you get the additional benefit with that big propulsor in the back, being able to push the aircraft through the air very fast.
So we’re talking, the request has been to go up to 250 knots. Remember the JMRTD initially was 230. Now they asked for 250. All of our models show that we’ll be able to meet if not exceed that, and I look forward to having this interview again when we’ve met those goals.
Mr. Muradian: Cargo capacity is going to be what, roughly, for the airplane in terms of what it’s supposed to be able to haul?
Mr. Rotte: The biggest design characteristic actually was 12 combat-equipped troops so that really sized the cabin. It wasn’t so much the payload, the pounds, even though the requirement is for some very heavy, very large troops, it was the fact of 12 combat equipped troops. So that really sized the cabin for the aircraft, and then everything kind of flows from there.
Mr. Muradian: I think it’s historically very interesting that if you go back to George Washington’s Army and today’s Army, soldiers are carrying roughly the same weight, even with all the lightweight equipment that they’ve got.
Let’s talk a little bit about — one of the things which is interesting is you see an all-new design, all-new airplane. But we know a couple of folks have observed like wow, there are a lot of blades on that airplane. How do you, including some of the folks who were in Army uniforms looking at it, saying wow, it’s really cool. Boy, there are a lot of blades on it. How do you guys respond to that, that it looks like there’s a lot of moving parts to the system?
Mr. Rotte: There definitely are a lot of moving parts. In terms of blades, I guess I would submit Black Hawk has eight blades on it. Four main rotor blades and four tail rotor blades. So it’s not that many more moving parts, but if you really want that leap-ahead technology it’s going to take some completely different ways of thinking and different ways to deliver that.
Again, part of the exciting aspect of this program is that we’re truly inventing something that’s never been done. So that comes with it challenges and risk and discoveries, but it also comes with great payoff. So I guess it’s one of those where it is definitely worth waiting for.
Mr. Muradian: And just for the audience, the tail rotor de-clutches so you don’t have that big blade that’s spinning around in the back when you’re doing troop operations, correct? That’s still going to be the case.
Mr. Rotte: Correct. And that’s really an elegant aspect of the aircraft. You have that big propulsor in the back that is wonderful at pushing the aircraft through the air, but it also, much like if you’ve ever flown on a turboprop commuter airplane, when you land you can reverse feather it so then it can turn into a big brake. So an air crew coming in on an air assault can keep that speed up all the way to the very end, and then throw that big brake out there, decel quickly, and land into the landing zone which is really the most vulnerable time during that type of operation. So you’re minimizing your exposure time, you’re increasing survivability, while still completing the mission.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about Chinook. Obviously a staple of Army heavy lift aviation. Certainly what, of 900 built more than 550 are in, almost 550 or so are in U.S. Army inventory.
Mr. Rotte: Correct.
Mr. Muradian: So you guys have been looking at a complicated program with F’s and with G’s, but the Block 2 was supposed to be key for the future of the Army lift. Last year the Army was talking about long-range lift being one of its absolute, or the ’17-’18 timeframe, absolute most important priority as it looks to great power competition, greater long range transport. The Block 2 is the only airplane, and it recently had its successful test flight, an extraordinary 2.5 hour test flight which I’ll ask you about because you guys covered an enormous number of objectives in that. But it’s the only airplane that can carry an M777, the 155 lightweight Howitzer; it’s the only one that can carry the JLTV, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle in its armored configuration.
What is the United States Army telling you about the future of this program? Is this sort of the end, as some people suggest, which is hey, it’s time for us to go to [Cap] Set 4? In which case what the heck does the U.S. Army do for the decade or more that it’s going to take to develop a replacement for what is, despite a date plate on the airplane that may say 1962, is actually a couple of year old airplanes because it’s been utterly remanufactured.
Mr. Rotte: I wouldn’t say that the Army’s planning on walking away. In fact Secretary Esper recently in testimony on the Hill said that Chinooks will fly at least into the 2040s. So clearly, that is a capability the Army values and has incorporated into all of their operations including multi-domain operations. And we completely understand that the Army has difficult choices to make as they try to pivot to a more modernization strategy, or more future facing strategy.
So on the operational side, we provide information, and clearly the Army is the experts on operations and how this fits into their contingency ops.
The other aspect that has to be considered, and we’re doing our best to inform all people involved in these types of decisions, is what’s the impact on readiness? What’s the impact on sustainability? What’s the impact on the industrial base which keys into readiness and sustainability, as well as the impact on the taxpayer? So providing that information to get well-informed decisions, the key is in Milestone C is 2021. So that would be enough time that on the original plan, the intention was to go into low rate initial production, and that is really the lynchpin time that there’s some decision point for the Army on are we going to go into that or not? And we’re doing our best to keep everybody informed so that all aspects are considered when they make that decision.
Mr. Muradian: But that’s an eight-year potential bathtub that you’re looking at, right? You need to have a lot of these orders. You could fly a lot of old airplanes for a long period of time. You had a great example in the press briefing, talking about how you were flying Hueys for a while and the Huey cost per flying hour was actually higher than the Black Hawks you were the rated aviator on. In part because you had a lot more Black Hawks, there was a sustainable line on it.
The reason the Chinook remains an affordable cost per flying hour airplane is there are a lot of Chinooks out there, but they’re constantly being refreshed and there’s a robust parts stream on it.
So how soon is there actually a detrimental impact on the Army, like is the window actually a lot smaller because there’s no way international orders are going to plug this potential hole you’re looking at?
Mr. Rotte: How many internationals have been plugging that hole really depends on how long the hole is, or how long the bathtub is.
So on the current plan, with entering low rate initial production in 2021, we believe there’s enough internationals out there, and we’ve been working towards that for several years. That’s not an unknown small bathtub. If that were to be moved out for five years, that creates a much, much larger challenge. Probably not enough internationals to fill that to the level that would be needed to get to that real economic order quantity to provide that benefit to all the fielded fleet and any future customers.
So again, that’s a big element of information that we’re working on all the decision-makers to try to inform them as we develop our path forward.
Mr. Muradian: But if you listen to Army leadership, they’re talking about [Cap] Set 4 as if it’s a much firmer thing at this point. Nobody knows heavy lift like you guys do, and I’m sure you guys have thought about what that [Cap] Set 4 would look like in the event that it ever happens. What does that [Cap] Set 4 look like? Because if you’re going to replace a Chinook it had really be markedly different or better than a Chinook, right?
Mr. Rotte: I would say the replacement for a [Cap] Set 4, [Cap] Set 5 is a better Chinook. That’s really what — we’ve done some studies on what it would take to evolve that with, you could put a four-bladed rotor system on it instead of three-bladed, get additional lift that way. Get additional speed. We’ve done several studies and then we’ve compared them to if you did a clean sheet. And the investment is significantly more for any type of clean sheet. But it will come back to how fast, how far, and how much do you want to carry?
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you a big question that I ask all of the United States Military Academy graduates. You’re a proud graduate of the Class of 1985. You taught, I think, at the Academy as well.
Mr. Rotte: I did. I taught in the math department. Who knew a math person would be doing business development, sales and marketing?
Mr. Muradian: Well, the math brain is a very, very good brain at the end of the day.
So talk to us, how’s Army football going to do this year? I think there’s a little bit of confidence on the Army’s side. And Darryl Williams, being a former captain of the football team doesn’t hurt as superintendent.
Mr. Rotte: No, it certainly doesn’t. I’ll tell you, as an Army football fan the best moment in the off-season was when Jeff Monken got renewed on his contract. He has really brought a tremendous energy and focus and just zest and life to the program and has been super coach. So having him there certainly makes my confidence go up pretty high. A lot of good players. I can’t wait to hear about spring football, coming off of two straight years of bowl victories, bowl games and bowl victories. And looking forward, of course, to Army/Navy in Philadelphia coming up. That will be a fun weekend. Hopefully we’ll sing second.
Mr. Muradian: It’s always great seeing you, Randy. Best of luck on the program. I look forward to talking again. And may the better team win in December.
Mr. Rotte: Absolutely. That’s all we can ever ask for.