Despite the Navy’s decision to scale back initial funding for the program, Lockheed Martin continues to ready a new facility opened last year in Owego, N.Y., that will integrate systems and outfit cabins on the VH-71, the much-anticipated replacement for the U.S. Presidential helicopter fleet. The popular name Kestrel has been suggested for the VH-71, but remains to be officially adopted by the Navy.
An initial EH101 test aircraft made a first VH-71 program-related flight at Owego in October. Based on Lockheed Martin’s US101, a derivative of the EH101 built by AgustaWestland, the VH-71 is aimed at satisfying the requirement for the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command VXX program for Presidential transport to serve as replacements for aging Sikorsky helicopters.
The Navy award capped a three-year competition that was punctuated by claims and counterclaims by the two competing teams–led by Lockheed Martin and
Sikorsky–over which of the proposed Presidential replacement helicopters was more “American.” In late 2003 the Defense Department requested proposals to replace 11 Sikorsky VH-3Ds and eight VH-60Ns that were reaching the end of their service lives. Now, for the first time, an imported design will use the U.S. commander-in-chief’s famous “Marine One” call sign. Lockheed Martin won the development and demonstration contract in January 2005 and a related $3.5 billion contract covering research, testing and evaluation. Target service date for the VH-71 Kestrel has fluctuated, from the original 2013 to October 2009 and now, reportedly, to February 2010.
Lockheed Martin Systems Integration is VH-71 prime contractor, supported by AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter. The two helicopter manufacturers have formed AgustaWestland Bell to serve as principal subcontractor for airframe design, configuration management and support. More than 200 suppliers in 41 U.S. states contribute 65 percent of VH-71 components, easily satisfying the federal government’s “Buy American” requirements.
Under accelerated development covering simultaneous design, testing and production, AgustaWestland is providing one EH101 for initial familiarization, another for engine testing and five VH-71s (of which three are being funded by the U.S. government) as test aircraft. All 23 aircraft in the program–consisting of five new European-built VH-71As and 18 Bell-assembled enhanced VH-71Bs–should reach U.S. Marine Corps Squadron One (designated HMX-1) by late 2014. This is the squadron tasked with providing transportation for the U.S. President, Vice President, heads of state and others specified by the White House Military Office.
The initial 12 aircraft–seven new-build test aircraft plus five pilot-production VH-71As–have U.S./U.S.-equivalent equipment, such as avionics, weather radar, electric, hydraulic and fuel systems, main rotor head, transmission and rotor blades, similar to European EH101s. They should deliver “maximum capability within an aggressive schedule,” according to a program official. “While we test and gear-up for production, concurrent engineering will allow seamless transition to [subsequent aircraft].”
VH-71s differ from EH101s in several ways, including improved survivability equipment and VIP cabin with lavatory, galley and a rear airstair for nonpresidential passengers. (VH-71s will include a taller, six-foot-high main airstair door so VIP passengers need not duck down on entry/exit.) They retain the EH101’s active vibration-control systems, which will be enhanced by sound-absorbent material throughout. The VH-71Bs will have state-of-the-art communications equipment (operated by a fourth aircrew member), head-up displays, a more rugged tail rotor, higher-power gearbox, redesigned rotor blades and increased-performance engines.
An AgustaWestland-owned test vehicle is conducting high-altitude and -temperature trials, powered by 2,500-shp General Electric CT7-8E engines. (The CT7-8Es also are planned to power the VH-71As, rather than the EH101’s optional GE T700s or Turbomeca RTM322s). The test vehicle will be retrofitted with the 3,000-shp CT7-8C-E1s selected for VH-71Bs. Lockheed Martin claims the CT7s overcame takeoff maneuver constraints, permitting a smooth transition to forward flight in any conditions.
Remaining test aircraft are new-build VH-71s constructed at the AgustaWestland factory in England. With no VIP interior, a third test vehicle will be used for evaluation of flight loads and avionics and should arrive at Lockheed Martin mid-year. According to equipment supplier Smiths Aerospace, the VH-71 will be the first helicopter to fly with “a five-screen, large-area integrated cockpit-display suite.” Its 10- by 8-inch liquid-crystal displays offer “more than 70 percent additional display area” than Smiths displays in the EH101.
The 18 VH-71Bs to be assembled by Bell under “Yankee White” security protocols will fly to Lockheed Martin for system and cabin installation, typically a nine-month process. Completed helicopters then go to Navair before delivery to the Navy’s HMX-1 branch, whose current Sikorsky VH-3D fleet will be retired beginning in 2012.