Bell Helicopter's immediate attentions at Dubai may be centred on the sale of AH-1Z attack helicopters, but back at its Amarillo, Texas facility the focus is on first flight of its latest rotorcraft.
The airframer plans to perform a maiden sortie of the V-280 Valor tiltrotor before "the end of the autumn", says Vince Tobin, vice-president military business at Bell, ushering in a frantic period of test activity as part of a broader US Army-led effort.
Initially to fly as part of the joint multirole technology demonstrator programme, Bell hopes the V-280 will then form the basis for the multiservice future vertical lift (FVL) initiative, initially as a replacement for the army's fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks.
Ground runs of the Valor's GE Aviation T64 powerplants have been taking place for the past two months, as the airframer gears up for first flight. Recent trials have also seen the aircraft rotate its engines between 75°-95°.
"It is restrained on the run stand, so we have actually had both engines turning simultaneously with greater than take-off power through the rotor system," says Tobin. "We like to say that it's actually sling-loading the earth at the moment."
Initial flights will be confined to low hover manoeuvres, moving to transitions into airplane mode, and then an expansion of the envelope in airplane mode "by the spring of 2018", says Tobin.
Although the V-280 faces competition for the FVL contract from the co-axial-rotor Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant, first flight of the latter has been pushed back into 2018.
"In a perfect world our competitor would be right there with us flying so we could get on with the competition, but if not our goal is to demonstrate as much capability to the army as quickly as possible," says Tobin. "We can't control what [our competitor] does."
While confined by the timeline of any potential future contract, Bell believes it could be in a position to begin the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of any programme of record by 2021, says Tobin.
"Our view is to demonstrate the low technical risk and high technology readiness level [of the V-280] and give the army the opportunity, if they choose, to bring the programme to the left."
Separately, the airframer is also pursuing early development work on its self-funded V-247 Vigilant unmanned tiltrotor.
Currently in the preliminary design phase, the V-247 is proposed for a nascent requirement from the US Marine Corps for a ship-borne UAV to perform surveillance or assault missions.
While Bell is waiting on the launch of an official procurement process for guidance, Tobin says the aircraft "could be in production by 2025", if required.
Tobin believes that ultimately both the Valor and Vigilant will be picked by the US Department of Defense. "Our expectation is that the customer will select both of those aircraft, mostly because they meet their requirements," he says.
"It would be difficult for them to say no to either programme based on the successes we have had."
Tobin says some of the technologies being developed for the Valor, notably the manufacturing processes for the wing, could be adapted for its existing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor if the US Department of Defense chose to launch an upgrade programme for the type. The V-22 is built in partnership with Boeing.