With at least three companies now vying to build more than 100 helicopters for the US Air Force, aircraft size has emerged as a major factor in the competition.

In response to a request for information issued in March, three teams -- Boeing, EADS North America and Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin -- have announced making submissions.

Boeing has submitted data on the CH-47 and V-22 to the US Air Force as potential replacements for the HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet of combat search and rescue helicopters (CSAR), a spokesman says. Offering both the Chinook and Osprey means Boeing is taking a starkly different approach to winning the potentially $1.7 billion contract than two other declared teams competing for the deal.

Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, which today formally announced entering the competition, plan to offer the UH-60M, a helicopter less than half the size of the heavylift CH-47 and barely one-third the maximum takeoff weight of the V-22 tiltrotor.

The same variance in size, roughly put, also applies to the aircraft proposed by EADS, which are the NH-90 and EC-725 Super Cougar. EADS submitted data on both aircraft because they believe they "offer proven capabilities at best value and lowest cost to the taxpayer," says EADS NA chief operating officer Dave Oliver.

In another twist, the UH-60M is itself a departure from both Lockheed's and Sikorsky's previous strategies for replacing the HH-60G.

In the former CSAR-X competition, a Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland team offered the US101 and Sikorksy proposed the HH-92. Boeing initially won the deal with the HH-47. But the contract award was overturned twice due to procedural mistakes in the acquisition process.

In March, the air force issued a new request for information with a different set of requirements.

"It was pretty evident that the air force had gone back and looked at their mission requirements and ended up with a requirement that a Black Hawk met," says Scott Starrett, president of Sikorsky Military Systems.

Rather than invest billions in a lengthy development project, the air force now plans to buy a mostly off-the-shelf helicopter. Budget documents show that less than $150 million is budgeted for a three-year engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) phase. A follow-on production order to replace 112 HH-60Gs is budgeted at $1.5 billion.

The only development work for the Sikorsky/Lockheed bid is the software to fuse data from the sensors on the aircraft into a common display, says Dan Spoor, Lockheed aviation systems vice president.

Entering the race for the HH-60G replacement deal grew out of a recent decision by Sikorksy and Lockheed to team up for the VXX presidential helicopter deal with the VH-92.

Still unclear are the intentions of AgustaWestland, but it's likely the Italian company will again offer the three-engine US101 and perhaps smaller helicopters.

Source: Flight International