Acceleration of battle to supply new presidential aircraft means US partner must be chosen

The US Marine Corps' widely expected acceleration of the VXX competition to replace the US presidential flight's Sikorsky VH-3D helicopters is making AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin's selection of a US manufacturing partner for the proposed US101 version of the EH101 a matter of urgency. A US Defence Acquisition Board decision is expected soon, and a partner could be chosen within the next two months.

A Department of Defense-funded analysis of alternatives is focusing on the Bell Boeing VV-22, Sikorsky VH-92 and US101. With the USMC now under White House pressure to field a replacement VVIP transport to enter service in 2007, and given the MV-22 tiltrotor's delayed service entry, most industry sources expect the contenders to narrow down to the two helicopter types.

AgustaWestland and systems integrator Lockheed Martin are studying political, industrial and cost considerations before deciding on a US101 production partner. Bell and Boeing appear to be the frontrunners given their strong political constituencies, with Kaman possibly third. Another option is to build the US101 at Agusta's Philadelphia facility, says the company.

"The helicopter has to be affordable; we don't want additional overheads to push up the cost of the programme. Cost, we believe, will be the essence of the deal. The decision of where to manufacture the helicopter will also have to take into consideration political support we receive from the different states," says Giuseppe Orsi, AgustaWestland managing director.

Although a symbolically important programme, the VXX requirement is for only 11 helicopters, not in itself enough to justify a US assembly line nor the goal of increasing US content to 75%. The real interest for Bell and Boeing is the US Air Force's much larger need to replace 100-plus Sikorsky MH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue machines.

AgustaWestland believes that the 35,000h flight time accumulated by the EH101 fleet will be critical in proving the machine's maturity, whereas the S-92 has only just been certificated and has only 1,500h air time. Sikorsky, however, says the helicopter's dynamics are derived from the widely sold S-70/H-60 family and that with the aircraft's entry into service next year it will quickly gain more fleet experience.


Source: Flight International