A new set of composite rotorblades available for Sikorsky S-61 heavy twins could boost performance and add decades of life to the type's VH-3D presidential fleet derivative - for as little as $1.25 million per aircraft.
That upgrade option focuses attention on a brewing political battle that could doom the Lockheed Martin VH-71 programme, which is intended to replace the VH-3D with a modified AgustaWestland AW101. The VH-71 started life in 2005 as a $6 billion US Navy contract, but has seen its cost to date soar to $11 billion owing to modifications demanded after the navy realised its requirements greatly exceeded the aircraft's design limits.
At a White House fiscal responsibility summit this week Senator John McCain chided President Barack Obama about the VH-71: "Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One [the modified Boeing 747s acquired by the US Air Force in 1990 for about $400 million each]. "I don't think there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money."
Obama replied that he has spoken with defence secretary Robert Gates about a "thorough review of the helicopter situation", and also mocked the apparent need to replace the Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60 fleet with a new presidential helicopter: "The helicopter I have seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. Maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it."
Whether building political momentum will bring an axe down on the VH-71 remains to be seen, but the project has crossed the 50% cost overrun limit which, under the Nunn-McCurdy law, automatically requires the military to consider terminating a contract.
And, Obama has remarked: "I think [the VH-71] is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we're going to have to fix it."
Meanwhile, Sikorsky by May plans to have certificated for the VH-3D the new composite main rotor blades, developed by Carson Helicopters and approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2004. A five-blade upgrade, which also involves strengthening the helicopter's tail pylon and transmission mounts, will cost just $1.25 million per aircraft and boost lift capacity by 910kg (2,000lb), speed by 15kt (28km/h) for the same power level and double service life to 20,000h.
Other upgrades being packaged by Sikorsky as the S-61 Triton include a Carson composite tail rotor that the company says will increase payload by 180kg by reducing by 50shp (35kW) the amount of power needed by the tail. A new glass cockpit featuring Sagem displays has just been certificated and engine manufacturer GE is investigating an upgrade to the VH-3D's CT-58 engines that will boost total power by 370shp to 1,870shp.