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HELI-EXPO: FVL 'taking off' as military helo sales wane

With global sales of military rotorcraft set to decline, vertical flight technology society AHS International is pushing future vertical lift as a way of replacing veteran rotorcraft designs like the Sikorsky H-60 and Boeing H-47, which trace their lineage back to the 1960s.

AHS executive director Mike Hirschberg said at Heli-Expo this week that an uptick in global commercial helicopter sales will partially offset a declining military market, which has reduced from a high of 854 units in 2013 to 734 rotorcraft in 2015.

Civil rotorcraft sales will trend upward by 32% from 1,150 units in 2016 to 1,520 aircraft in 2020, according to AHS projections presented at Heli-Expo on 29 February. Meanwhile, military aircraft sales will decline 24% from 776 this year to 591 units in 2020, based on current plans and projections, especially driven by US budget estimates.

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Bell is already thinking about military derivatives of its new 525 commercial fly-by-wire helicopter

James Drew/Flight International

Combined military and civil rotorcraft production will rise 10% from 1,920 to 2,110 units over the same period, says Hirschberg, but a military helicopter is more expensive, he notes. That will result in an estimated $5 billion decline in overall market value.

According to AHS, rotorcraft conglomerate Russian Helicopters will leap-frog Sikorsky as the world’s most dominant rotorcraft manufacturer by market share from 2015 to 2020, capturing 18% of average overall revenue.

Though not as stringently certified as European and American types, Russian rotorcraft types are cheap and reliable, which is an attractive proposition for many clients, explains Hirschberg. There's is also excess rotorcraft manufacturing capacity in US left over from a major US military recapitalisation driven by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The next largest companies by market share will be Sikorsky (16%), Airbus Helicopters (15%), Finmeccanica (11%), Boeing (8%), Bell Helicopter (8%), NH Industries (6%) and the V-22 Osprey joint venture Bell-Boeing.

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Mockup of the Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky

James Drew/Flight International

Going forward, though, AHS says it will continue to push Congress to put pressure on the US Army relative to Future Vertical Lift (FVL), which is a long-considered effort to replace almost every trusty but outdated rotorcraft design in the Pentagon’s inventory in five categories. By sheer cost and scale, it will be comparable, but still far cheaper than, the $400 billion Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

“The V-22 is really the only new rotorcraft design that’s been fielded by the US is the last 50 years, and even that took 25-some years of development,” says Hirschberg. “All other aircraft that are deployed are designs from 30 or 50 years ago, from when these aircraft first flew.”

He referenced the H-47 Chinook (first flight in 1961), H-60 Black Hawk (1974) and AH-64 Apache (1975), but although the new Sikorsky CH-53K being produced for the US Marine Corps is essentially a new aircraft, it is still based on an aircraft architecture developed in the 1960s.

Hirschberg says the only aircraft, so far, to introduce fly-by-wire technology are the Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant Joint MultiRole technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD), CH-53K and Bell Helicopter 525 Relentless on the commercial side.

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Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant

Sikorsky/Boeing

Hirschberg says he is pleased to see the army fund FVL-Medium in 2017 and release two requests for information related to two capability sets in the light and medium categories. “For 15 years now, seeing action in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve learnt a lot,” Hirschberg says. “Performance shortfalls are speed, range, payload, endurance and altitude.”

He notes “unacceptable losses” in those conflicts, with more than 400 aircraft and 600 American lives lost, mostly because of platform capability limitations, not just enemy fire.

“We’ve been very active for the last couple of decades, really lobbying for our investment in future rotorcraft,” he says. “The current future vertical lift programme, FVL, was codified into congressional direction as a result of AHS. We hired a lobbyist to say we need something new; we can’t just be building Black Hawks forever. We can’t keep building Hueys and Cobras anymore – we’ve run out of letters of the alphabet.”

Future Vertical Lift was a surprise feature of Heli-Expo, with Lockheed confirming it will propose the S-97 Raider for any light assault rotorcraft category and Bell saying it won’t propose another traditional “helicopter” design to the US military after the H-1 programme of record concludes.

MD Helicopter also announced a new military assault platform called MD6XX. Meanwhile, Karem and AVX maturing innovative tiltrotor and compound coaxial designs.

“We’re really happy that Future Vertical Lift is really starting to take off,” says Hirschberg.

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