Over an 8-day period recently the Bell V-280 Valor team completed 5 hours of flight over 4 sorties; nearing 180 total flight hours and over 330 total operating hours.
This September 9, 2020, Bell press release highlighted how their V-280 was “reinventing” vertical lift mobility.
Fortunately, America’s defense leaders, including the U.S. Army, are well aware of these new and growing threats. The nation’s oldest and most senior branch of military is undergoing an unprecedented modernization effort to widen the military gap among America’s adversaries and develop state-of-the-art technology that can save lives. Modernizing the military, however, begins with some tough choices. It means letting go of the old to make room for newer, more innovative technologies so completely outside the box that the enemy would have little chance of defending itself. It means letting go of time-tested warfighting vehicles that have done the job well but are decades old – and despite upgrades will not give our military the overmatch capabilities they need on the future battlefield. It means setting the bar higher than it’s ever been set before.
At the center of the Army’s modernization campaign is its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. The program aims to replace the Army’s fleet of assault and attack reconnaissance helicopters with an armada of next-generation long-range aircraft that can dominate all areas of the battlefield and deliver unparalleled humanitarian aid in the most austere environments. In short, these future aircraft must be significant – even radically – more capable than the current fleet’s speed, range, safety, agility, lethality, durability and maneuverability.
If an aircraft could check all those boxes, it would redefine mobility, save countless lives and revolutionize the battlefield, much like the Army’s first helicopters did nearly 60 years ago when they were introduced during the Vietnam War. Developing an aircraft of this caliber is of such high priority to the Army that its Army Futures Command is moving the FVL program forward at an accelerated rate, working with industry leaders in ways the Army has seldom done before.
How close are we to this next generation aircraft? Believe it or not, the leading contender is ready now. The Bell V-280 Valor has already taken flight. In fact, the V-280 has been flying for well over a year and recently was recognized as a finalist for the National Aeronautic Association’s 2018 Robert J. Collier Trophy, the benchmark of aerospace achievement for more than 100 years. The award’s prestige can be measured by looking at some of the previous winners, like Chuck Yeager for smashing of the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 rocket jet and the crew of Apollo 11 for the first lunar landing.
The V-280’s superiority takes a page right out of the Transformers movie franchise, with its tilt-rotor technology, allowing the aircraft to own the air both vertically and horizontally as it transforms from helicopter mode for hovering flight to a fixed-wing airplane mode for forward flight. This unique design enables the aircraft to support ground troops in extremely tight quarters with its low-speed agility, while reaching a cruising speed of 300 knots, or twice as fast as the helicopter it was designed to replace. The V-280 also has a range twice that of any other helicopter, not only giving it greater access to get to the objective but radically improving productivity – thus bringing support to more people with fewer aircraft and at less cost per mile.
If there’s any doubt about the technology behind the V-280 and whether it can stand up to the rigors of military use, one doesn’t have to look far to quash their hesitations. Since 2007, tiltrotor technology has been on full display in the aircraft’s larger predecessor, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, and it’s one of the reasons the V-22 is the most requested aircraft among all military combatant commands. The V-280 is the next generation.
While the V-280’s speed, range and agility draw headlines, there’s an entire lineup of next-generation technology built into the aircraft that further elevates the aircraft as a dominant force in multi-domain battle. Earlier this year, the V-280 flew for the first time with its integrated Piloted Distributed Aperture System (PDAS), developed by partner Lockheed Martin. The PDAS system enables a 360-degree view for the pilot and crew to see through the skin of the aircraft, providing a situational awareness and missile-warning capability unavailable on any Army rotorcraft in the world today.
Other technological marvels that have been built into this warfighting aircraft include a digital “fly by wire” flight control system, which provides a high level of agility, reduced pilot workload, and enhanced flight safety in all weather conditions and visibilities. Built with an open system architecture, the flight controls allow for software updates and capability increases at a much faster rate and at much lower costs than ever before.
In fact, Bell has incorporated automation in software design and test processes that allow for software updates at a pace in line with Silicon Valley. And we are not updating cell phone emojis – we’re carrying America’s sons and daughters into and out of combat. Rebooting is not an option.
The entire aircraft represents a new scale of innovation with a clean sheet design, featuring a revolutionary fixed-engine concept that offers more reliability and maintainability, straight wing design for more speed and range, and increased rotor flapping to enable extremely agile operations. The rotors, engine, and exhaust are all positioned high to reduce the chances of injury in dense landing areas with poor visibility or during tactical operations when troops are not necessarily thinking about rotorcraft safety.
But, aside from the state-of-the-art technology embedded into the V-280, perhaps the biggest achievement in the development of the aircraft is in how it was built. Bell fundamentally and culturally changed the way it develops technology through design, build, test and sustainment, allowing it to cut costs and build with digital precision.
Our engineers created a digital thread throughout the entire product lifecycle, from the design phase to the build, service and support phases, accelerating manufacturing, increasing precision and saving as much as 95-percent in costs in some cases.
This cultural shift is relevant to all future platforms, as it is the enabler for the Army to modernize its fleet by 2028 and to strengthen its capabilities across the world. The global impact of the V-280 extends current technological boundaries with an affordable, accessible aircraft, further protecting our military personnel in extreme combat operations and delivering faster, safer humanitarian aid to people in dire need. V-280 has reinvented vertical lift mobility far beyond what the helicopter did for military and civil aviation 60 years ago. It will not only modernize the Army but allow the military to rewrite the book on what is possible in military operations.
Just as the helicopter radically changed the U.S. military’s ability to maneuver on the battlefields of Vietnam, the V-280 tiltrotor will dramatically expand the U.S. Army’s reach, lethality, and overall effectiveness on tomorrow’s battlefield.
America needs this capability now.
This graphic produced by Graphic News in 2019 provides an overview on the V-280: