Even unsuccessful FARA designs advanced the future of vertical lift
By Dan Parsons | March 27, 2020
Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 8 seconds.
Five competitors pitched five radically different, and novel, rotorcraft for the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and though only Bell and Sikorsky will proceed to building prototypes, all the participants advanced the science of vertical lift, according to Army aviation officials.
“We have seen, certainly, some uniqueness in technologies,” FARA program manager Dan Bailey said during a March 26 conference call with reporters. “Some of those vendors got as far as taking some of those critical components into fatigue testing. . . . Those individual technologies now give us an opportunity for future advancement in our current [fleet] and the FVL [Future Vertical Lift] fleet in the future.”
The Army gauged each of the five offers on three general criteria: how well the design met capability requirements, the maturity of the design, and how well the company or team was “postured” to meet the Army’s development and competitive prototyping schedule, Bailey said.
Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, director of the Future Vertical Lift efforts at Army Futures Command, said both successful FARA designs proposed significant improvements in speed, range and endurance over the legacy rotorcraft fleet.
“Both performers that we are taking into phase two . . . provided leap-ahead capability,” Rugen said March 26. “We were very impressed with their performance in some of our war-plan scenarios that really showed some tremendous leap-ahead across the tenets of Future Vertical Lift, which is that ability to have reach, speed, range, endurance . . . superior to our current fleet, superior lethality and superior survivability.”
Bell’s low-drag canted tail rotor is not necessarily new, but the company achieved “extremely innovative” efficiency with its implementation on the Invictus, Rugen said.
“And then, the X2 technology continues to impress,” he added.
The Army did not prescribe any particular configuration, resulting in the menagerie of designs that ultimately were pitched, from compound coaxial helicopters to ducted fans and swiveling tail rotors.
“When we kicked the program off and put the requirements out, or the attributes out to industry, we didn’t even tell them if it was a side-by-side or a tandem cockpit and you can see that the user community has accepted both,” Bailey said. “It really was a holistic look at the overall aircraft. It wasn’t just about a particular configuration. The beauty, really, that we couldn’t have asked for more of, is that all five of the vendors brought five different configurations. The beauty going forward is that we have two different configurations continuing in the program.”
Five contracts awarded in April 2019 were for the full scope of the FARA program through the flight test in fiscal 2023. The Army budgeted $750 million per vendor with $15 million set aside for phase one and the remaining $735 applied to phase two.
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The Army likely will buy 300-400 FARAs to fulfill the armed scout role in its air cavalry squadrons for a total program value of between $15 billion and $20 billion. Those missions, vacated by retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, are performed by AH-64E Apaches teamed with Shadow drones. A first unit should be flying the new FARA in fiscal 2030.
Through “other transactional authorities” built into the program, the Army can terminate funding to any or all of the awardees at any time. The Army basically invoked that authority on March 25 to cancel further funding to three of the competitors and greenlight Bell and Sikorsky to proceed.
“Part of the program plan was at the completion of initial design, which is what we just completed, we would do an assessment and based on resources available, we would reduce to two or more,” Bailey said. “Our resources today allow us to carry two forward. So, what we have done is we notified industry yesterday that we would continue to fund them into phase two and we notified three that we would stop funding them.”
Bell’s 360 Invictus is a conventional single-main-rotor helicopter with a ducted, canted tail rotor and a single GE T901 engine supported by a supplemental power unit. Sikorsky’s Raider X is a 20-percent-larger version of its S-97 coaxial compound helicopter.
Boeing offered a conventional helicopter with an aft-mounted propeller to push it at least to the Army’s 180-knot desired cruise speed.
AVX Aircraft’s compound coaxial helicopter sports dual ducted fans for forward thrust while Karem Aircraft’s AR-40 has a single main rotor but adds huge wings that span 40 feet and a tail rotor that swivels from a conventional orientation in helicopter mode to pusher prop at high speed.
Bell’s Invictus and the Sikorsky Raider X prevailed because they presented the “most advantageous, overall, for the government,” Bailey said.
Both successful teams pitched technologies that have already been tested and in some cases proven on other platforms and in other contexts, “matured through their own commercial enterprise, but also through their JMR programs,” Bailey said. Bell’s Invictus uses the rotor system developed for the 525 Relentless, for instance.
Bell and Sikorsky (along with partner Boeing) are also in a head-to-head competition to build the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft that will eventually replace the UH-60 Black Hawk. The V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor and SB>1 Defiant coaxial compound helicopter sprung from the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program and were chosen to proceed into the FLRAA program of record earlier this month.
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“The design is leap-ahead capability,” Bailey said. “The design is very mature at this stage and, of course, we have assessed their ability to execute this program on our schedule as a very acceptable risk. When you put all that packaged together, that’s what got them to the most advantageous level for the government.”
Producibility of each airframe was carefully weighed to determine whether they could be built in time to meet the Army’s “aggressive yet achievable” program schedule, said Pat Mason, program executive officer for aviation. That schedule “gives industry the appropriate challenges . . . to work through their design and build processes and show us really what they can do,” Mason said.
What should result is “a good competition between vendors that have solutions that can meet the timelines that we’re looking at,” Mason said. “We’re looking for those companies to be able to perform and to be able to execute what they told us they could go do.”
The job is to replace the AH-64E Apache, or at least relieve that aircraft from the armed-scout role it has filled since retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.
“We have very suboptimal force structure now in our air cavalry squadrons,” Rugen said. “Predominantly, FARA would be a replacement for our Apache teamed with Shadow in our air cavalry squadrons.”
A final FARA design review is scheduled for sometime in December. At that point, the Army will reevaluate the two designs “to determine that the solution is still meeting the users’ needs, that they are postured for success, that risk is acceptable to meet our schedule,” Bailey said. Having cleared that hurdle, each company will begin to build its competitive, operational prototype.
Ground testing of the aircraft should begin in 2022 with first flights planned for November of that year, Bailey said. Flight testing of both prototypes will continue through mid-2023. In summer of that year, the aircraft will move to the Army’s aviation headquarters at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama for a final test and evaluation by government test pilots and a final decision on which to produce.
“It really presents us great problems to have because we’ve got two great competitors on a program that we must deliver for the Army. This is our number-one Army aviation gap, our future scout aircraft,” Rugen said.