Pace of presidential helicopter programme forces team to use six development aircraft and fast-track production

Lockheed Martin is to double the size of its US101 test fleet in an effort to support the US Navy's aggressive fielding schedule for the USA's next presidential helicopter.

The pace of the four-year development programme is also forcing the Lockheed/AgustaWestland/Bell Helicopter team to produce the first seven VXX aircraft using the existing EH101 production line in Yeovil, UK. The remaining 19 aircraft will be transferred to a final assembly site now under construction in Amarillo, Texas.

Programme officials, however, note that there is no change to a commitment to split the $6.2 billion contract between three national industries – two-thirds to the USA and a third to be divided between Italy and the UK. Delivering the first seven aircraft from Yeovil will provide "best value to the programme and meet the schedule and risk associated with it", says Col Frank Mazur, programme manager for the VXX.

Both steps also point to a possibly under-appreciated advantage that the Lockheed proposal offered against the Sikorsky VH-92 bid in a fierce competition decided on 28 January. In a fast-paced development programme, Lockheed's team appears to have adopted a highly flexible strategy for reducing schedule risk.

The USN plans to field the first VXX aircraft in fiscal year 2009, and the development programme must by this time fully test the aircraft's new 2,500shp (1,860kW) General Electric CT7-8C engines and install a sophisticated mission system package. After the first five production aircraft are fielded, the navy plans to upgrade the engine to the 3,000shp CT7-8E standard and introduce further mission system enhancements.

The USN's contracting strategy called for these challenges to be addressed using a fleet of three test aircraft to be introduced after FY07, but Lockheed is adding three more aircraft, including one delivered last year and another two to arrive later this year. The extra aircraft are being loaned to the navy, but should still be available for use after its purchased test assets are delivered.

The issue of using a foreign assembly site for the first seven purchased aircraft is likely to stir renewed criticism from Sikorsky's political supporters, although Lockheed last year stated 90% of the US101 programme's lifecycle production and maintenance costs will be placed with US industry.


Source: Flight International