Prototype designs competing to be the US Army’s new Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) likely will not fly until 2024, according to army officials.

While Sikorsky’s Raider X and Bell’s 360 Invictus were previously scheduled to lift off for the first time this autumn, a new delay in completing the common engine for the two experimental aircraft has shifted that date by several months.

A 3D printed model of the GE T901 engine hangs from its sling waiting to be installed in an UH-60M c US Army

Source: US Army

A 3D-printed model of the GE Aerospace T901 engine. Bell and Sikorsky have used the mock-up to continue design and fit testing of their FARA prototypes, even without the actual engine

The army’s Programme Executive Office (PEO) overseeing aviation platforms tells FlightGlobal the GE Aerospace T901-GE-900 Improved Turbine Engine (ITE) that will power the FARA aircraft will now be delivered to Sikorsky and Bell in the early part of the government’s fiscal year 2024, which starts on 1 October.

“The [ITE] engine will be delivered to FARA vendors [in] early FY2024,” the PEO says.

That change means the first flight will likely not happen until calendar year 2024, according to the army’s top acquisitions official, assistant secretary Doug Bush.

“Assuming things go well, you have to start with ground testing,” Bush said at a McAleese industrial conference in Washington DC on 15 March.

Bush notes “a lot of diligence on the ground” will be required before the new FARA competition aircraft take flight. He says that will cause some change to the FARA test schedule, but not a substantial delay.

“I think we are still on track for next year,” Bush says of first flight. He describes the possible delay as “months, not years”.

Manufacturers of the FARA prototypes had previously aimed for their aircraft to make first flight in the autumn of 2023. That date already represented a one-year delay to an earlier schedule, which had competitive testing starting sometime in 2022 or early 2023.

The PEO aviation office confirms Bush’s assessment. However, the office says the overall FARA decision schedule is not impacted.

“The ITE delay does not impact FARA’s source selection date,” it adds. “Source selection to a single vendor will occur after thorough technical evaluations are completed on the submitted proposals.”

Army budget documents indicate the service is targeting the middle of FY2025 for “Milestone B” – the point at which a procurement programme switches from technology development to selection of a final engineering and manufacturing specifications. 

OH-58D Kiowas - US Army

Source: US Army

The US Army retired the Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior in 2017. The service has since used a combination of Boeing AH-64 Apaches and unmanned aerial vehicles to fill that role

GE Aerospace tells FlightGlobal that the recent delay is not the result of an engineering issue, but rather of supply chain delays that affected a “small number” of ITE components.

“We are laser-focused on execution and working closely with the army to deliver flight-test engines this [autumn] to support the FARA competitive prototypes,” GE Aerospace says.

Bush describes the issue as “manufacturing challenges”.

According to GE Aerospace, ”each engine with be tested, disassembled and inspected, reassembled and retested before delivery”. The company says it has five qualification engines in assembly, in addition to the two flight-test engines for FARA.

The army separately selected GE Aerospace to design the ITE engine that will power the FARA aircraft and replace the current GE Aerospace T700 engine that powers Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and Boeing AH-64 Apaches.

GE Aerospace in 2019 won a contract worth $517 million to produce the new multi-aircraft power plant.

Bell declines to comment on the latest delay. Sikorsky did not specifically address the matter, but says the company is ready to integrate the new engine into both the Raider X and the army’s fleet of UH-60s.

“We look forward to the increased performance and fuel efficiency of the ITE over existing enduring fleet capabilities,” says Jay Macklin, Sikorsky’s business development director for future vertical lift programmes. “We are continuing our risk reduction efforts for Raider X with our S-97 Raider flight test programme.”

The S-97 is a derivative aircraft of Sikorsky’s X2 line, with similar design and flight characteristics to the Raider X prototype. The company has been flying the S-97 in West Palm Beach, Florida to collect flight data and test systems while the FARA aircraft await an engine.

Both Bell and Sikorsky have previously said their rotorcraft are approximately 95% complete. The companies have also recently both showed off nearly completed prototypes of the Invictus and Raider X.

Lockheed subsidiary Sikorsky and Textron subsidiary Bell are also locked in competition for another army aircraft development programme – the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) replacement for the UH-60.

Bell’s V-280 tiltrotor was selected as the initial winner of that competition last December. However, an official challenge by Lockheed has thrown the decision into uncertainty.

The US Government Accountability Office is set to make a decision in Lockheed’s FLRAA appeal by the end of April.