Development hurdles ahead for future presidential helicopter

 - August 28, 2007, 11:36 AM

The AgustaWestland/Bell/Lockheed Martin VH-71 made its first flight July 3 in Yeovil, UK. The 40-minute flight reached speeds of 135 knots and was reportedly uneventful, but there are likely challenges ahead for the program. The U.S. Navy is developing the VH-71 as a replacement for the 30-year-old Sikorsky VH-3Ds and somewhat newer N-60 “Whitehawks” that transport the President and other high-ranking government officials. When the President is aboard, these helicopters are designated “Marine One.” Initial deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2009.

Officially, the cost of the program has scalated to $6.2 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but some industry analysts estimate final program costs to be north of $7 billion. That is more than half of what Airbus spent developing the A380 and translates into a per-unit cost of more than $270 million, making the VH-71 one of the most, if not the most, expensive helicopters in history.

AgustaWestland will produce airframe components for 23 VH-71s in the UK, and Bell will assemble and maintain the airframes in Texas. Lockheed Martin Systems Integration will fit the helicopters with interior components and advanced communications and protection systems in Owego, N.Y.

The push to replace the current Marine One fleet began in earnest after 9/11 when it became clear that the aging fleet required extensive maintenance and had limited upgrade capabilities in terms of communications modernization and anti-threat hardening.

After a spirited and politically charged ompetition, the AgustaWestland team beat out a competing bid by a Sikorsky-led team that proposed to use a variant of the Connecticut manufacturer’s S-92. Sikorsky has provided Presidential helicopters since 1957, and the award of the contract to a team using a foreign-made airframe was controversial, with the Connecticut Congressional delegation leading the criticism. Sen. Chris Dodd (D) called the award “an affront to the American worker.”

Some Washington wags alleged that the contract was a reward to the government of then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for its support of the Iraq War, a charge the Pentagon and the White House publicly denied. But both Blair and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally lobbied President Bush for the contract.

The Navy maintained that the AgustaWestland team won on technical merits with its three-engine, 34,392-pound EH-101, arguing that the proven platform provided a readily available, commercial, off-the-shelf solution. Since it first flew in 1987, the EH-101 has amassed more than 120,000 flight hours. Deliveries began in 1997 and 130 are currently in service. But the EH-101 has not been without its teething problems, some of which, such as tail-rotor cracking, remain unresolved, prompting several operators to place significant speed, climb and torque restrictions and additional inspection requirements on EH-101s in service.

Program a ‘High Technical Risk’
Further complicating matters is the government’s requirements that the new Marine One be a combination of flying main battle tank and airborne command-and-control center in the time of a national crisis, with on-board encrypted broadband Internet and video-conferencing, among other things. The EH-101 airframe, rotor system and GE T700-T6A1 turboshaft engines currently cannot accommodate the additional weight of those requirements.

In a March 2007 report, the GAO faulted the program to date for yielding a design that was 1,200 pounds overweight, over budget and behind schedule. The GAO assigned the program high technical risk. The GAO found, “The VH-71 program began system development and committed to production without fully maturing technologies, achieving design stability or demonstrating production maturity due to an aggressive high-risk schedule driven by White House needs.” The agency concluded, “The current program may not be executable” and “concurrency in development, design and production continues to put the program at risk for cost and schedule delays.”

The Air Force cited Lockheed Martin’s difficulty with the VH-71 program in awarding its $15 billion contract for 141 CSAR-X search-and-rescue helicopters to Boeing rather than the US-101 fielded by the AgustaWestland/ Bell/Lockheed Martin team. Lockheed Martin appealed and that contract is now being rebid.

The current plan is to divide the VH-71 program into two phases. Under phase one, four test VH-71s are being constructed; five phase one production VH-71s will be delivered beginning in 2009. The GAO said phase one is already $341 million over budget. While providing a passenger cabin nearly twice the size of the VH-3D’s and weighing nearly 14,000 pounds more, VH-71s produced during phase one will have essentially the same capabilities as the helicopters they replace.

Under the technically riskier and potentially more expensive phase two of the program, 14 helicopters with additional hardening and airborne command-and-control capabilities would be delivered beginning in 2015. To carry the additional weight, these helicopters will need as-yet-untested and more powerful engines, heftier gearboxes and drivetrains, longer tail booms and larger main and tail rotor systems. The changes are so profound that the Navy concedes that phase-two helicopters essentially constitute a completely new aircraft development program.