Bell Boeing's V-22 Osprey tiltrotor has taken a long time to gain credibility. Now manufacturing weaknesses threaten to hinder the programme's progress

Gaining credibility has never been an easy feat for the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, which is poised to enter operational trials in the second quarter. In flight test since 1989, the past four years have seen the programme backtracking to restore faith in the tiltrotor's basic airworthiness.The programme now finds itself shifting attention and resources to address new crises caused by critical manufacturing flaws.

An example is the schedule for the three-month operational evaluation (Opeval). Although the pending flight trials are likely to resolve any lingering doubts about the V-22's basic airworthiness, the start date is hanging on the resolution of a new manufacturing glitch revealed by the programme in January.

Programme officials credit Bell Helicopter's production team for acknowledging deficiencies in manufacturing quality and output and moving to address them, but greater strides are required to be made this year. Bell is responding with a fast-paced strategy to remould its production system with modern lean manufacturing principles, to include the relocation of hundreds of employees. The pace of V-22 deliveries this year provides the first opportunity to gauge how the manufacturing problems are being resolved. That is because a broad set of process improvements – recommended last year by a panel of manufacturing experts commissioned by the US Navy – is expected to be fully implemented by the end of March. If signs of progress are not shown this year, pressure may rise on programme officials to consider more dramatic structural reforms, such as transferring Bell's status as lead contractor to V-22 industry partner Boeing, according to knowledgeable sources.

Production frustrations

At the same time, the last two years of airworthiness flight tests have been frustrated by several production-related glitches. The discovery of faulty titanium tubing caused programme chiefs to ground the fleet for about 10 days in March 2003. The in-flight rupture of a nacelle blower in June 2004 forced the programme to plan a rapid redesign, which is now being installed on the test fleet.

Most recently, defective chrome plating in a proprotor gearbox component was contaminating a lubrication oil system, setting off cockpit alerts that required precautionary landings. The glitch has been traced to an inadequate manufacturing process used by a low-tier supplier to Bell.

Last week, US Marine Corps training squadron VMX-22 announced it had lifted a temporary grounding on the aircraft caused by the flaking problem. But the disruption may have contributed to the programme postponing a 25 January meeting called the operational test readiness review, which was to consider a go-ahead decision to enter Opeval as soon as mid-February. V-22 officials, however, remain confident that the operational flight trials will begin by early March without causing a long-term schedule delay for the programme.

The fact that production concerns have captured the spotlight is in some ways a measure of how much the programme's problems have changed since 2001. Negative publicity about a series of manufacturing slip-ups are overshadowing what programme officials are calling a historically successful and groundbreaking period of flight tests since May 2002.Indeed, the V-22's significant progress in airworthiness flight trials after regrouping from two fatal crashes five years ago can be seen – somewhat perversely – in a new proposal to cut the programme's budget. Programme officials describe the action as more of a production deferral than a budget cut. The proposal seeks to delay production orders for 22 tiltrotors roughly one-third of the planned production over the next five years – beyond fiscal year 2011, but the programme's top-line requirement to buy about 420 tiltrotors for the USMC and the US Air Force's special operations command remains intact.

This is not how most acquisition programmes measure progress, but a different standard may apply for a programme originally terminated in 1989 by then-defence secretary Dick Cheney, then resuscitated, only to face a similar crisis a decade later. Thus, when the Pentagon unveils a $55 billion budget restructuring plan seeking a $10 billion funding cut for the Lockheed Martin F/A-22, but only production deferrals for the V-22, the tiltrotor's supporters greet the news optimistically.

Terminating the V-22 contract no longer seems to be one of the Pentagon's default money-saving strategies – perhaps signalling the programme has overcome critical doubts about the feasibility of tiltrotor technology.

Major reprieve

This is no mere moral victory, but also a major reprieve. It is true that deferring orders now will strain the programme's hopes to significantly improve the V-22's affordability, and also stretch the USMC's resources to sustain an increasingly brittle fleet of Boeing CH-46E Sea Knights.

However, the short-term output decline offers the chance for a mandated overhaul of V-22 lead contractor Bell Helicopter's admittedly outdated manufacturing system to take hold, even as the team continues to produce a minimum sustaining rate of about 11 new aircraft per year.

In a dramatic gesture, Bell has announced plans to transfer the bulk of its programme staff from headquarters offices in Fort Worth to the assembly site in Amarillo, a remote location in the northern plains of Texas. "We found out, as many other programmes have, that to be successful, your programme team, your design team, your customer support team and your build team all need to be located in the same building," says Bob Ellithorpe, Bell's V-22 programme director. The move will transfer about 300 jobs to Amarillo and is indicative of the dramatic changes in Bell's manufacturing process sparked by the recommendations of the expert panel.

Manufacturing errors

Essentially, Bell is in a race to play catch-up to a huge manufacturing lead claimed last year by Boeing, the V-22 team's junior industry partner. Today, Boeing's plant in Philadelphia is producing V-22 fuselages on a clip that outpaces Bell's final assembly line in Amarillo by about nine months. Amarillo is tasked with final assembly and check-out operations, as well as building wing nacelles and drive train systems.

Boeing's V-22 production team got a boost in 2003 with the opening of a new manufacturing facility in Philadelphia, which absorbed many of the lean manufacturing practices adapted from the company's commercial aircraft sector. Bell opened the V-22 Tiltrotor assembly centre in 1999 in Amarillo, which lies in the district of a long-time ally in Congress, Representative Mac Thornberry. In recent months, Bell has aggressively moved to adopt the state-of-the-art manufacturing capability of its partner on the programme.

Manufacturing miscues, if unresolved, could hamper two short-term goals for the programme – securing a multi-year procurement (MYP) deal in 2008 and increasing the production rate from the current minimum levels. Both steps are required for the programme to realise an ambitious goal to lower the cost per aircraft from $73 million to $58 million by 2010.

That goal is already in jeopardy due to the Pentagon's plan to delay 22 orders for several years. But Col Craig Olsen, the joint programme director, insists the focus remains on achieving the $58 million target on schedule. Ellithorpe, however, maintains that an adjustment may be required.

"We basically changed the denominator, and we got a smaller number," says Ellithorpe. "That changes the equation. And so we have got to recalculate our capability to achieve that $58 million target. If it's not achievable then we'll have to make that decision. We can move the $58 million target on a calendar basis to the right. We could change the target. Let's say it [changes to] $61 [million]. We could look at more price reduction programme [PRP] funding. So there's a lot of options on the table we can look at."

First contract

But the uncertainty comes at the same time that the Bell Boeing team is set to receive the first PRP contract, a roughly $70 million award intended to achieve a $1 million per aircraft cost reduction by next year. It is the first of annual four PRP contracts planned to address the affordability target.

Deferring production orders would also have an unintended affect on the scope of the MYP deal. "The short answer is we're going to continuing to pursue MYP plans," says Ellithorpe. "That's our best opportunity for reducing the overall cost of the programme. The numbers change. But the idea of using a multiyear procurement tool is still in our plan."

Anticipating a tough round of negotiations on the MYP deal, industry and government contract officials have agreed to start preparing now. Both sides are working to define contract terms for the next annual contract awards scheduled in 2006 and 2007. That should allow programme negotiators two years to concentrate on coming to terms on the MYP deal by 2008.

First, however, the Lot 10 contract for FY06 cannot be awarded until the MV-22B test fleet passes Opeval. The three-month series of tests will measure the aircraft's ability to perform each of the USMC's missions, as well as scrutinise its mechanical reliability and maintainability. Launching Opeval this year would return the programme to the point where the two crashes in 2000 prompted an 18-month grounding and a dramatic restructuring.

The pause also gave the programme time to prepare an exhaustive flight test schedule and develop a Block A "safe and operational aircraft" intended largely to address concerns raised by the two crashes. The cockpit was altered to give the pilot visual, audio and tactile cues of entry into vortex ring state (VRS), and the nacelles were redesigned to remove the risk of hydraulic line chafing. The first eight MV-22Bs modified to the Block A standard are being prepared for the operational evaluation.

Crash concerns

Meanwhile, a series of high-rate-of- descent flight trials produced voluminous data on the V-22's susceptibility to the VRS phenomena. Programme officials are confident entering Opeval that the V-22's existing flight envelope allowing descent up to 800ft/min (4m/s) is easily within the aircraft's safety limits. The programme has also staged two seaborne flight demonstrations to ensure flight-control software updates have resolved concerns about V-22 hover instability on aircraft decks.

As programme officials strive to purge the V-22's technical and production concerns, the momentum of the US military's transformation has been shifting in their favour. Interest in the advantages of tiltrotors may be at an all-time high within the Pentagon.

New warfighting doctrines shaped by combat experience in Iraq and the war on terrorism clearly bolsters the case for a high-speed aircraft that can take off and land almost anywhere. The V-22 is viewed in this context as a step in the right direction, although not a final solution.

Moreover, a new leap in tiltrotor technology is being contemplated in the Pentagon. The US Army is developing a warfighting concept called mounted vertical manoeuvre that is dependent upon developing a C-130-sized vertical-lift aircraft with tiltrotor-like speed. Meanwhile, the USN is adopting a seabasing strategy that calls for staging and launching brigade-sized operations from massive floating bases, which requires the service of a similar aircraft.

These two requirements have been identified as a long-term development priority by the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics Michael Wynne. A memorandum signed by Wynne in early October directs the army to lead an effort to create an acquisition and development strategy for a heavylift, vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

Bell is positioning the Quad Tilt-Rotor a double-winged, four-engined V-22 follow-on as the leading candidate for the potential new development programme.


Source: Flight International