The Buzz

V-280 Valor: How the U.S. Army Might Have Learned from Its Mistakes and Built a Super Weapon

After years in development, the future of vertical lift has finally arrived on the Army’s doorstep: Bell Helicopter’s advanced V-280 Valor tiltrotor prototype finally took its maiden flight at a test facility in Amarillo, Texas, the company announced on Dec. 18 — a major milestone for a next-gen aircraft designed to meld the tactical maneuverability of the branch’s current rotary fleet with the range and force projection of fixed-wing troop transports.

Developed to replace the iconic AH-64 Apache attack chopper and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helo, the Valor boasts a top speed of 280 knots (hence, somewhat cheekily, the “V-280” designation) and a range of up to 800 nautical miles. That’s double the top speed and operational range of the tried-and-true Black Hawk. And with a troop capacity of 14 armed warfighters (plus a crew of 4) and load capacity of more than 12,000 pounds, the Valor can haul 23% more troops and 25% more cargo than the conventional utility helicopter, per Popular Mechanics.

With its first flight, the versatile Valor takes a major step towards actual combat downrange. Bell and partner Lockheed Martin were selected in 2014 to develop an aircraft for an Army research program that feeds into the Pentagon’s sweeping DoD-wide review of its helicopter fleets, the Future Vertical Lift program. In September, Bell parent company Textron Inc declared the V-280 “100%” complete; a month later, it published footage of the new aircraft flexing its tiltrotor muscles, to coincide with the Valor’s debut on the floor of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual tech expo in Washington.

The initial flight “demonstrates our commitment to supporting Department of Defense leadership’s modernization priorities and acquisition reform initiatives,” Bell CEO Mitch Snyder said in a statement on Dec. 18. “The Valor is designed to revolutionize vertical lift for the U.S. Army and represents a transformational aircraft for all the challenging missions our armed forces are asked to undertake.”

The Valor is not unchallenged, however, in the Army’s search for a “joint multi-role demonstrator” aircraft: It’s going up against the Sikorsky/Boeing SB-1 Defiant, which debuted at AUSA in October as well. And both aircraft remain appealing options for an Army facing a worsening aviation mishap crisis: Army Safety Center data shows the branch experienced 155 total aviation mishaps since fiscal year 2014, the vast majority of which occurred in the last two years; a July 2017 DoD inspector general audit of Black Hawk fleet evaluations found that the branch failed to evaluate nearly a quarter of its airframes due to lack of oversight.