On June 18, 2018, Bell’s V-280 Valor prototype took off for its first public demonstration, six months after its first flight. It’s another, early glimpse at the tiltrotor aircraft that could one day replace a significant portion of the U.S. military’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, among other aircraft.
The Valor, however, would fly much farther and faster than the Black Hawk thanks to its design, as the V-280 — similar the V-22 Osprey — takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. It’s all part of the Pentagon’s Future Vertical Lift program, which has Bell’s Valor competing with Boeing and Sikorsky’s twin-propeller SB-1 Defiant helicopter, and which ultimately aims to produce a family of helicopters and/or tiltrotors in the 2030s for attack, reconnaissance, medium-lift and for hauling troops into battle.
During the V-280 flight on June 18, the sleek — even menacing-looking — aircraft made two 200-mile-per-hour passes over Bell’s tiltrotor assembly plant in cruise mode with its rotors in the forward position, passing 38 total flight hours since December 2017. Soon, Bell wants to increase the prototype’s speed in the coming months to more than 320 miles per hour.
Before landing, the test pilots hovered the tiltrotor — painted black — and, like a dance, tilted the wings from side to side.
This most recent flight comes one month after the V-280 flew in cruise mode for the first time. Bell’s engineers stressed the pace of the testing during War Is Boring’s visit to watch the flyover, as this is taking place during a fierce competition ahead of Future Vertical Lift with the SB-1. That helicopter is due for its first flight in 2018 — although Sikorsky and Boeing have developed a similar, lighter scout helicopter called the S-97 Raider.
Bell’s experience is with the bigger and heavier V-22. “With the tiltrotor configuration, speed and range are really inherent to the platform, very uniquely, because we’ve got that wing,” Bell V-280 program manager Ryan Ehinger said. “And reliability is something we’re also looking at — taking all the lessons from 400,000 hours of flight on the V-22 and employing those on the V-280.”
Bell is keen to show off the V-280’s fixed engine nacelles. This is a departure from the V-22 which has tilting nacelles where the engines and rotors pivot together when switching between cruise and hover mode.
The downside to the V-22’s design — when in hover mode — is that the intensely hot exhaust jets from the nacelles direct downward toward the ground. This limits disembarking troops’ room to maneuver (on the Osprey, they exit down a rear ramp), can spark an occasional grass fire , and can contribute to brownout conditions which have caused crashes .
Not so on the V-280. The Valor’s rotors adjust into vertical and forward positions for vertical and cruise flight, but the wingtip engine nacelles don’t move, keeping the hot engine exhaust directed high up and rearwards. Lower disk loading — the weight the rotors must lift — further helps reduce downwash.
It’s an engineering feat, and adds a lot of space for disembarking troops for whom every second — and inch — matters when setting up a perimeter or returning fire at an enemy after exiting from the aircraft’s six-foot-wide side doors. Similarly, fast-roping from the V-280 should be a smoother ride given the direction of the exhaust.
When standing next to the aircraft, the area around it certainly feels roomier than the UH-60 Black Hawk — where space to maneuver outside and nearby is constrained by a tail rotor. The V-280 doesn’t need one. The interior is likewise slightly bigger than a UH-60’s, with more cargo space and room for 12-14 troops compared to the Black Hawk’s 11.
The V-280’s design should also come in handy during search-and-rescue missions given the lack of both a tilt rotor and downward-facing nacelles. Same goes for MEDEVAC within the “golden hour” when a wounded soldier’s chances of survival — with treatment — are highest.
More specifically, the V-280 will travel twice as far and 150 miles faster than the UH-60, at a cost of what Bell expects to be $30 million instead of the Black Hawk’s $20 million — and the V-22’s $70 million. This ties in to what the U.S. Army, with the Marine Corps, are calling “multi-domain operations” against a potential foes — such as Russia or China — which are narrowing the odds by fielding more sophisticated weapons and sensors.
“We’ve been increasing our capabilities 10 and 20 percent since the 1960s, since we were flying Hueys in Vietnam — then we went to Black Hawks,” said Carl Coffman, Bell’s director of global business development.
“Probably one of the biggest air-assault missions we’ve done since Vietnam was in Desert Storm. That mission was probably conducted at 10 knots faster and maybe a range of 30 additional kilometers than what we were fighting in Vietnam. So we’ve got to get past this 10 percent evolvement of legacy fleets and get to a revolutionary new capability to reestablish that gap.”
Bell is working on it. The V-280 is due to continue testing for the rest of 2018. Next up — Sikorsky and Boeing’s SB-1 Defiant.