The US May Finally Get a Cheap Alternative to the $70 Million V-22 Osprey
The Marine Corps may have yet another reason to question its famously complicated and hideously expensive V-22 Osprey. Bell Helicopter says its V-280 Valor offers today’s military a smaller, lighter, cheaper, and potentially more versatile spin on the tilt-rotor concept.
Bell unveiled the V-tailed aircraft, which looks straight out of Halo, last week at the Farnborough International Airshow. It designed the machine for the US Army, which is looking to replace its venerable and menacing UH-60 Black Hawk with a next-gen vertical-lift darling of Army aviation.
So while it’s no direct threat to the Osprey, the Marines might soon envy their colleagues. For less than a third the price of each $70 million Osprey, the Army will get nearly the same performance, along with a slew of benefits any military operation would savor.
Compared with its official competition, the Black Hawk, the Valor offers a serious upgrade in combat range (920 miles, compared to 360) and top speed (350 mph, instead of 183), along with the ability to deliver gear and soldiers into tight spaces. That makes it just as fast as the Osprey, but even more long-legged (the V-22 has a 426 mile combat radius).
The V-280 does that by combining the fixed wing aerodynamics of a plane with the rotors and vertical capabilities of a helicopter. Sure, the Osprey offered the same blend, and that ended up coming with a whole pile of other problems. But in the 27 years since the Osprey’s first flight, Bell has learned a lot.
For starters, the V-280 will use a simpler rotor-tilting process. Where the Osprey tilted the entire turbine engines to go between horizontal and vertical flight, the V-280 will only shift its 35-foot rotors and forward drive shafts.
Furthermore, the V-280’s smaller size and weight—coupled with its nearly identical rotor diameter to the Osprey—means it will be able to take off and land with less effort, kicking up less of the dust that can hamper pilot and crew visibility. It can also worm into the engines, hurting power and long-term engine life.
Those non-rotating engines, meantime, won’t burn grass or landing pads during takeoff and landing. Their placement allows troops to hop in from the sides, instead of using only the rear ramp, like on the Osprey. And they’re oriented so the V-280 to carry forward-firing and side-facing weaponry, which on the Osprey threatened to hit the engines or rotors.
The Osprey still holds the strength advantage, carrying roughly double the V-280’s 14 soldiers or 10,000 pounds of gear. But Bell says it can offer the V-280 for just $20 million a pop. It’s also pitching the tiltrotor to the Navy, offering a revised design that could fit on cramped aircraft carrier decks and inside hangars. The first version, for the Army, should take to the air by the end of 2017, though full deployment wouldn’t happen until about 2030.
First, though, Bell, which is working with Lockheed Martin here, needs to win the Pentagon’s joint multi-role technology demonstrator program competition. Boeing and Sikorsky are in the running, too, with a high-speed helicopter they call the SB-1 Defiant, also pegged to start flying late next year.
Even if the Valor wins out, it won’t render Marines’ Osprey instantly obsolete. Yes, the V-22 had its problems early on: Four accidents during development left 30 people dead. But the aircraft has since proven reliable and safe, if challenging for pilots. “The V-22 Osprey isn’t controversial anymore,” says Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute. “But it’s still pricey, and the V-280 delivers all the versatility of tiltrotor technology at a lower price.”
That’s the upside of learning from your mistakes—and American troops now stand to benefit.