Contractors Ready Offers for U.S. Air Force Huey Replacement

 - March 2, 2017, 11:00 AM
Boeing and Leonardo Helicopters displayed their MH-139 offering to the Air Force at Dulles International Airport. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Defense contractors are readying proposals to supply the U.S. Air Force with more than 80 helicopters under the service’s UH-1N Huey replacement program. The Air Force has an inventory of 59 twin-engine UH-1Ns, which first entered service in 1970. They now provide security at nuclear missile sites in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana and emergency “continuity of government” transport of officials in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force said last month that it will release a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the fleet replacement in April, and contractors expect a final RFP will follow this summer. The service plans to award a contract in 2018. Deliveries would begin one year later.

The service had earlier sought to meet the requirement by awarding a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky for UH-60M Black Hawks. After encountering resistance to that approach in Congress, it decided last spring to compete the program. Though the release of the draft RFP has been delayed by some two months to April, the requirement for 84 helicopters expressed in an Air Force request for information last fall is expected to stay the same.

On February 28, Sikorsky announced that it will offer an HH-60U designation Black Hawk for the program, complementing three HH-60Us the Air Force already operates. Air Force and special mission aviators began flying the U-model in 2011; it comes with modifications including an electro-optical sensor and a rescue hoist. The U-model shares 85 percent commonality with the service’s new HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter, which will replace HH-60G Pave Hawks, Sikorsky said.

“Sikorsky’s HH-60U Black Hawk offers a proven, capable helicopter that is already in the Air Force’s inventory to meet the critical needs of the UH-1N Huey Replacement Program,” said Samir Mehta, Sikorsky Defense Systems & Services president. “It is a low-risk solution for the Air Force that will enable the service to support two vital national defense missions while realizing the long-term cost savings of the Black Hawk platform.”

On February 25, Boeing briefed reporters on an announcement timed for the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando—it has teamed with Italy’s Leonardo to offer the latter company’s AW139 intermediate twin-engine helicopter for the requirement. Boeing would serve as the prime contractor for an MH-139 variant built by Leonardo Helicopters (formerly AgustaWestland) in Philadelphia.

Capable of carrying 12 to 15 people depending on its seating configuration, the MH-139 is comparable in size to the UH-1N, but with a top-mounted transmission provides 30 percent more cabin volume. It comes with 90 different kit options, executives said during a briefing at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. The model they displayed—tail number N603SH—was fitted with a missile approach warning system and ALE-47 flare dispensers. The helicopter can also be armed with fuselage-mounted guns, something the Air Force will require, they said.

The plan that day was to fly reporters aboard the helicopter, but the outage of a modular avionics unit processor card led executives to keep the aircraft on the ground until the card was replaced. The AW139 is fitted with the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics suite, which features four primary flight displays and a center display that could be used for FLIR imagery. “I flew [Sikorsky] -53s and [Bell] 412s; this is a modern helicopter,” remarked Leonardo senior pilot Rich Burchnall, who previously flew aeromedical missions.

Among other possible contenders, UH-1 manufacturer Bell Helicopter did not answer messages seeking information about its plans. Airbus Helicopters is not inclined to compete based on the criteria contained in a preliminary RFP, said spokesman James Darcy. The manufacturer has floated a mixed-buy approach that would see the Air Force acquire its UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter built in Columbus, Mississippi, for the continuity of government mission and a larger aircraft for missile-site security. The U.S. Army operates the Lakota.

“We’ve been advocating for a long time to the Air Force the merits of a two-aircraft solution for the missions that are currently performed by the UH-1 November,” Darcy said. “The case that we’ve argued to the Air Force is that if they were to treat those as two separate requirements, it would allow them to get the higher capability aircraft that they need to fulfill the nuclear support and security mission and offset the cost of that by acquiring a more cost-effective platform for the continuity of government mission, which has a much lower set of mission requirements.”

But the Air Force will likely opt for a single helicopter type, Darcy acknowledged. “We don’t see that there is a competitive business case for us unless something has changed significantly in the final RFP,” he said.