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Military Aerospace Technology

Helicopter Turbulence

Competition to build new vertical-lift presidential fleet raised key issues involving domestic sourcing, security and performance.

By Mickey McCarter

Although the Navy’s decision to award a contract to a Lockheed Martin-led team has ended the long and bruising competition to build the next generation of presidential helicopters, analysts say the decision is unlikely to end either the contract fight or the broader debate touched off over such issues as domestic sourcing, security and performance.

Navy officials have announced that Team US101, which also includes AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter Textron, had bested Sikorsky Aircraft for the $1.7 billion contract to provide some two dozen new helicopters for the presidential fleet.

The Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) is the most visible helicopter fleet in the world. The 19 Sikorsky VH-3D helicopters that currently make up the fleet exist to provide the primary command-and-control platform for the president during short trips.

But the current Marine One fleet of Sikorsky Sea King helicopters dates back to 1974. As a result, the Naval Air Systems Command released a broad agency announcement in 2003 calling for a replacement for the aging aircraft.

The process of selecting a manufacturer stirred intensive congressional interest and occasioned more than one decision delay. Late in 2004, the Department of the Navy indicated that it would soon announce the award of the final contract, which calls for delivery of 23 new aircraft by 2008.

The program intends to field full operational capacity for the new vertical-lift aircraft (VXX) to conduct presidential support missions no later than 2012 to 2014.

While the contract award won praise from lawmakers from New York, where Lockheed Martin Systems Integration is based, politicians from Sikorsky’s home state of Connecticut vowed to contest the decision. Sikorsky, a unit of United Technologies that teamed with Rockwell Collins to design the new aircraft, had sought to remain the manufacturer of the presidential helicopter with its VH-92 Superhawk.

The contract won by Lockheed Martin could be worth a total of up to $6 billion. But its significance in the helicopter business could be even greater, observers said, if it gives the winner a leg up in the ongoing competition to build the Personnel Recovery Vehicle search-and-rescue helicopter.

Domestic Sourcing

Reacting to the decision, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Representative Duncan Hunter, R-CA, raised the issue of domestic sourcing of the new helicopter, which was a key focus of political debate during the competition.

“A competitive and viable American helicopter technology base remains of vital importance to U.S. national security. Therefore it is difficult to understand why we would use U.S. tax dollars to fund the further development of foreign helicopter technology,” Hunter said.

Although the distinction was by no means clear-cut, much of the controversy centered around the fact that Sikorsky is based in the United States, while the Lockheed Martin team’s aircraft would be built with AugustaWestland, a British-Italian consortium.

Sikorsky officials, such as VH-92 Program Director Nick Lappos, emphasized that the competing Lockheed Martin team includes international corporations.

“It’s an AugustaWestland helicopter actually,” Lappos said. “They are the ones that make the helicopter that we are competing against. Lockheed Martin is a very good defense house. But it is using that airframe and putting its boxes into it.”

Sikorsky had used international components in its S-92 helicopter, which served as the basis for the VH-92, Lappos said. To meet high standards for presidential security, however, the company replaced many of those international partners with American ones, he added.

“We have moved the fuselage manufacturer from our international partners to partners in the United States, specifically Vaught Aerospace in Dallas, TX,” Lappos said. “That is a very important move.”

AugustaWestland designed the aircraft, known as US101, being offered by Lockheed Martin. AugustaWestland serves as a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, along with Bell Helicopter.

Bell Helicopter made the very first Marine One helicopter, noted Steve Ramsey, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin US101. Lockheed Martin would build the helicopter at Bell facilities in Amarillo, TX, and General Electric would provide the engines.

“We have announced over 200 U.S. suppliers to supply the U.S. content to make this an American helicopter for the U.S. military,” Ramsey said, adding that Lockheed Martin also has extensive experience with helicopters.

“We have been doing helicopter integration for 30 years, primarily on Navy helicopters, basically integrating all of the sophisticated mission equipment on the Navy helicopters, the 60B, and currently the 60R and 60S,” Ramsey said.

Previously, the Lockheed Martin and AugustaWestland team worked together to deliver 44 EH-101 helicopters to the British Royal Navy. The team was on time and on budget, and now those helicopters are flying in Iraq, interacting with U.S. forces, Ramsey said.

“We offer a battle-proven helicopter,” Ramsey said. “There are 95 of these helicopters flying in military inventories today in the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Japan, and it’s currently in a production line for Denmark and Portugal. Our competitor is just delivering its very first helicopter for its very first user, which is a commercial user, an oil rig platform.”

At least 65 percent of the Lockheed Martin US101 helicopter, as initially delivered, would consist of parts from U.S. manufacturers, Ramsey said. Over the life of the helicopter, Lockheed Martin plans to support it with repairs and overhauls that would eventually boost the U.S. content of the helicopter to 90 percent of the total program value.

Supply Chain Security

But Sikorsky’s Lappos warned that the foreign content of US101 would weaken the overall security of the helicopter development program.

“When we deliver goods to the president of the United States, we have to make sure they are built in a security environment and all the way through the chain of custody,” Lappos said. “That is understood, for any critical components especially. We realize that our competition has an aircraft that is fundamentally made overseas.”

While 65 percent is a “pretty respectable number,” the other “35 percent, we think, will be the rotors, transmissions and controls—the parts of the helicopter that are critical,” Lappos said.

Department of Defense regulations state that those possessing access to critical functions of a presidential vehicle, whether car, bus or aircraft, must hold Yankee White clearances and be U.S. citizens, Lappos pointed out.

“What we have had to do in the past and continue to do now is create a system that ensures safety and security, and we do that with American manufacturers that are capable of getting those clearances. We laid the gauntlet down,” he said.

Accusations regarding supply chain security do not have much merit, Ramsey responded.

“If you look at the Air Force One and the way it is built today, and if you look at the Marine One and the way it has been built in the past by Sikorsky, I think you will find that there are foreign components on those aircraft today,” he said. “This entire effort by Sikorsky is nothing but a diversion away from the merits of a discussion of which is the better helicopter.”

Both helicopters have an “international heritage of design,” Ramsey said, and both Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky would build the helicopters in the United States using some foreign components.

“So there’s no real difference here,” he said. “We ought to focus on which is the better helicopter for the president. You can be sure we are going to be 100 percent compliant with U.S. government regulations on how you build the helicopter.”

Size and Performance

The Sikorsky-led contractor team for the VH-92 included FlightSafety International for simulation systems and training; L-3 Communications Integrated Systems for communications systems and furnishings; Northrop Grumman for the aircraft survivability system; Rockwell Collins for major cockpit systems; and Vought Aircraft Industries for integrated aerostructures. A final contractor, General Electric Aircraft Engines, was to provide the VH-92 propulsion system.

The VH-92 would incorporate safety features from the Sikorsky S-92 medium-lift helicopter, including “flaw-tolerant designs that prevent routine dents or corrosion from becoming a safety issue; external, suction-fed fuel tanks; and complete bird-strike protection across the entire aircraft, including the rotors, up to the maximum operating speed of the helicopter,” according to the company.

Although the US101 is a larger aircraft, the VH-92 actually has a small payload advantage, Lappos argued, since the UH-101 burns more fuel over any given distance because it is larger and heavier. The VH-92 can carry about the same amount of weight because it is more efficient, he said.

“The actual flight performance in terms of the payload or the range or the speed is actually a bit superior in the VH-92,” Lappos said. “So starting off in a nutshell we offer an air vehicle that is somewhat more capable.”

But Ramsey maintained that the larger size of the US101 provided it with the ability to meet the Navy’s plans to grow the helicopter through a development program over the next decade.

“Because we have a much bigger helicopter than Sikorsky, we have much more growth capability onboard the helicopter than they do,” Ramsey said. “To the extent that the Navy wants to add things to the helicopter over time, we have much more space to add those things and the capability to add those different subsystems on the aircraft.”

The Lockheed Martin US101 is 1 1/2 feet wider than the Sikorsky VH-92, Ramsey said. Both helicopters have about 6 feet of clearance space within the cabin, but the US101 is about 8 feet, 2 inches wide.

“The length of the cabin is the other parameter,” Ramsey said. “ When you add all of that together, our cabin volume is basically 1,266 cubic feet.”

Lappos said the Sikorsky aircraft is a few feet shorter, but its cabin is actually a bit longer.

“The interior volume for the aircraft we are offering is 1,079 cubic feet,” Lappos said. “Interior square area is 163 square feet, which is a fairly substantial volume. It’s actually about 29 percent larger than the aircraft it would replace.”

Engine Count

Another major difference between the two aircraft is obvious at a glance: US101 has three engines, while the VH-92 has two engines.

The current Marine One helicopter has two engines, and the third engine on US101 does not provide any real advantage, Lappos contended.

“With the changes that occur in design over the years, you discover that like your car or almost any other technical product, 20 years is a pretty good-sized interval for increased capabilities, especially for safety,” Lappos said.

Lappos argued that preferred design solutions for most aircraft use a two-engine model rather than a three-engine model. In one newspaper survey, experts at three different aerospace schools examined the two designs and found the VH-92’s design superior to the UH-101, Lappos reported.

“Many of the airliners that are coming out now have two engines, much more efficiency, better payload capability and, with modern engines, the performance does not degrade because you have two versus three,” he said.

To Ramsey, however, the third engine is a “huge advantage” in safety for US101.

An additional point of contention involves long-range transport of the aircraft. The VH-92’s ability to fit into Air Force transport craft gives another advantage to Sikorsky, according to Lappos. The president must rely on his own transportation whenever possible, which is why the Marine One helicopters travel with him wherever he goes.

“We actually fit into both Air Force transports. We understand that for them that there is more difficulty. They can only load into a C-5 with major disassembly,” Lappos said. “We can load into either a C-5 or C-17 with no significant disassembly and be flying about two hours after unloading from those machines. We believe that they can load into a C-17 with some effort and probably meet that timing, but the C-5 loading for them would require major disassembly, and it’s probably a period measured in days for them to be ready to fly again.”

Ramsey disagreed with that assessment, arguing that the appropriate transport aircraft could also lift the US101.

“Our helicopter was flown from the United Kingdom to the United States onboard a C-17, and has actually offloaded and is now participating in testing at a U.S. government on the West Coast of the United States,” Ramsey said. “That’s proof that it does indeed fit within the C-17, and further proof of our battle-proven quality, because the helicopter is testing its various battle subsystems on U.S. ranges here in the United States.”