The Bell V-280 Valor rotated its rotors for the first time today, marking a major milestone in the US Military’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. The aircraft aims to eventually replace the ageing Black Hawk helicopter that has so faithfully served the US armed forces for so long.
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, made famous by the movie Black Hawk down, is classified as a utility helicopter. It’s been serving the US Military’s needs since its introduction to the service in 1979. Following hard lessons learnt in Vietnam, the Black Hawk was designed to be significantly more powerful and survivable compared to helicopters of the past. To that end, it achieved its goal, continuing to serve as the military’s workhorse in several countries.
Over the years, the Black Hawk saw a number of upgrades to adapt to its changing mission profile. The chopper has been used in everything from close air support to medical evacuation and even electronic warfare. In fact, a modified version of the helicopter is said to have been used in the raid that took Osama Bin Laden’s life.
The aircraft has proven itself so reliable and robust, that modified versions of this aircraft serve as the POTUS’ private transport.
Having served for almost 40 years now, it’s understandable that the US Military is looking for an upgrade.
Bell’s V-280 Valor, a potential replacement, looks very much like the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft designed for V/STOL (vertical/short take-off and landing). This aircraft was designed to marry the flexibility of a helicopter with the performance and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft.
The Osprey itself has been a controversial aircraft. It’s suffered numerous failures and crashes over its development cycle and early deployment. It’s also an expensive aircraft, priced three times higher than the Black Hawk.
While the V-280 bears a superficial resemblance to the Osprey, the company explains that the Valor is an entirely different beast. Speaking to Wired, Bell explains that the Valor has been designed from scratch using learnings from the V-22 and the Black Hawk. It’s smaller and lighter, for one thing, and cheaper to boot, and Bell hopes that it will be a true replacement for the Black Hawk.
Bell isn’t the only one vying for the contract, however. Sikorsky and Boeing are working on their own project, the SB-1 Defiant. Unlike the V-22 Osprey-inspired V-280, the SB-1 uses a three-rotor system that is more compact and helicopter-like than the Osprey.
The Defiant uses two co-axial, counter-rotating main rotors to provide lift, just like Russia’s Kamov Ka-52, but also includes a “pusher propeller” mounted on the rear, which provides forward thrust. The extra rotor means that the aircraft can accelerate and decelerate faster than a traditional helicopter, and that it might also attain a much higher top speed.
Given the V-22’s history, however, it’s likely that the US Military will be reluctant to opt for the Bell design. That said, the competition has barely even begun yet and the Boeing-Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant is yet to be seen in the flesh.
The Valor’s test on 4 October is just the beginning of the ground-testing phase for the helicopter. It’s yet to take flight.
Popular Mechanics reports that Bell is also working on an armed version of the V-280 and that it will be pitched as a replacement for yet another of America’s ageing workhorses, the AH-64 Apache.