Pilots want to fly it, mechanics want to maintain it, but no one knows for sure what the Future Vertical Lift aircraft will look like or what its characteristics will be once it cracks its shell and hatches.
But there’s one thing soldiers are sure of: The Future Vertical Lift, or FVL, will be Army aviation’s golden egg.
As of now, it’s in the embryonic stage of development, and like happy parents, Army aviators were excited to talk Tuesday, about their nascent conceptual flying machine at the two-day 2014 Mission Solutions Summit of the Army Aviation Association of America, known as Quad-A.
FVL’s banal program name – the Joint Multi-Role helicopter program – belies the advanced capabilities it promises to deliver. The hoped-for features will be enough speed, lift, lethality, range, survivability and low sustainment costs to replace the already aging fleet of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. A heavy version could replace the Chinook.
While the Black Hawk, Chinook and Apache are continually getting upgrades, it’s the same old 1960s technology airframe underneath all those bells and whistles. With FVL, it’s a completely new airframe and helicopter and the Army wants to do this right.
That delivery capability is so important to the Army that despite operating in a fiscally constrained environment, Lt. Gen. James Barclay, deputy chief of staff, G-8, emphatically declared to aviators at Quad A that “we are committed to moving forward with the Joint Multi-Role FVL type platform.”
Army aviators are not the only ones excited to witness the hatching of FVL. Industry partners are just as eager to experience it and be called the parents.
There are now four vendors – Bell Helicopter, Boeing-Sikorsky (combined efforts), AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft – providing capabilities and details of their designs to the JMR-FVL, a process called “initial design and risk review.”
That process will conclude this summer and down-selection will begin. The down-select means two vendors will be eliminated while two move forward to build FVL demonstrators to be used through 2019, and at some point a vendor or combination of vendors will get the contract.
“It’s going to be critical over the next 12 to 14 months to make sure the requirement is properly designed,” Barclay said, referring to the initial design and risk review. He added that U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is also examining the requirements.
That effort and follow-on efforts with the demonstrators will take a lot of resources and some risk as well, said Keith Flail, a program director with Bell, although he added that the government will share 50 percent of the cost.
Flail had a small mockup and a full-size mockup set up in a huge exhibit hall in the basement of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. Soldiers and others flocked to the FVLs, although most of the older pilots realized they’d probably never fly one because of the lengthy design, test and procurement process.
The other vendors were there in the big basement as well with their mockups and industry reps, including Abe Karem, president of Karem Aircraft.
He said the competition among vendors was friendly, preferring to call them “candidates.”
Karem said he thinks FVL will be in Army aviation units, starting in 2030.
Barclay, however, was not as optimistic.
Adding several qualifiers to his remarks, Barclay said: “From my perspective, I think it’s going to be somewhere probably in the mid- or late-30s as we move forward. I don’t think that timeline is changed. We kind of played with the 2030 mark on the wall, but I think we’ve always kind of been honest with ourselves with 2035 to 2040 timeframe at looking at that next piece of aviation future.”
Barclay has seen enough programs and systems go through the process to realize that things don’t just happen overnight.
But another aviator disagreed vehemently with Barclay, albeit in a friendly fashion.
“We’re shooting for late 20, early 30 on future vertical lift,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, commander, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, Ala., speaking in the session that followed Barclay’s.
“I’ve got the bully pulpit so I can throw that one out,” he added in jest.
But he was not joking about how vital FVL is for not just aviation, but for big Army.
With passion, he said, “I understand we’ve got fiscal constraints, but we’ve got to shorten the acquisition cycle. There’s lots of mature technology out there right now that we can get to FVL early.
“So we’ll look at requirements, take it through the joint community,” he continued, “but we’ve got to move faster on it, figure out solutions to get our feet in the water, because if we don’t get our feet into the water, it’s going to die in my opinion.”
It’s not all about the timeline, however.
Another aviator who has a hand in this birthing process, Brig. Gen. Robert Marion, with Program Executive Office Aviation, said during one of the Quad A sessions that it’s the journey, not just the destination that may be the most important part of FVL.
The FVL competition isn’t just about delivering “a squad 24 kilometers to execute a mission. They’re proving technologies,” he said.
While finding the best replacement for the aging helicopter fleet is of utmost importance, Marion said the Army may find candy scattered along the way.
FVL is “going to prove technologies,” he said, meaning such things as variable speed transmissions and lightweight materials that could prove to be “key enabling technologies,” perhaps not just for FVL but for other systems.
If he’s right, more than the goose will be proud of the golden egg.