No man left behind: the US next gen air combat helicopter

An update from Sikorsky reveals that the $1.2bn programme to replace the US Air Force's rapidly ageing HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters is progressing well. The contract signed in 2014 will see the delivery of HH-60W designed for critical combat search and rescue and personnel recovery operations for all US military services. Claire Apthorp caught up with the project to get a glimpse of the final product and find out what it can do.


Combat helicopter

Personnel recovery from the battlefield is a mission that the US military takes very seriously. ‘No man left behind’ is a motto not only rolled out in the films, it is a tenet that the military will devote almost limitless resources to in order to deliver on and bring its soldiers out of harm’s way.

For the past three decades the mission of extracting personnel from the battlefield under stressful conditions for the US Air Force (USAF) – and conducting search and rescue operations – has been fulfilled by the HH-60G Pave Hawk. With this fleet now ageing and in need of replacement, the air force is running the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) programme, under which it will procure the HH-G60’s successor.

Next-generation solution

Sikorsky, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, was awarded the $1.28bn engineering manufacturing and development (EMD) contract to design and develop the CRH in mid-2014. Under the contract the company is developing a derivative of its UH-60M Black Hawk for the project.

Sikorsky’s CRH solution has been designed as a true next-generation capability over the current Pave Hawk. Like the UH-60M helicopter, the aircraft (currently designated the HH-60W) is expected to feature T700-GE-701D engines, composite wide-chord main rotor blades, and fatigue- and corrosion-resistant machined aerostructures that the company says will sustain manoeuvrability at high density altitudes.

"The HH-60W design also includes an advanced Tactical Mission Kit."

The HH-60W design also includes an advanced Tactical Mission Kit integrating multiple sensors, data links, defensive systems, and other sources of intelligence information for use by combat rescue aircrews.

Acting as a subcontractor, Lockheed Martin is responsible for outfitting the aircraft with its mission planning system, defensive systems, data links, mission computers, adverse weather sensors and system integration of all ‘CRH-unique subsystems’.

In total the USAF is expected to procure 112 HH-60W helicopters.

No time has been wasted since the contract award, and the programme has achieved a significant number of important milestones in the last two years – the most recent of which was the successful execution by the Sikorsky-led team of the CRH Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in May.

A speedy programme

When the contract was awarded, Sikosrky was the only bidder and the project had been in some doubt due to budget constraints. However, then Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, argued: “Over the last 10 years, the air force has discussed upgrading the platform that performs this sacred mission for all Department of Defense personnel who go into harm’s way. This mission is part of the military ethos, and the air force is committed to providing it.

“The resulting contract is $700 million below the government's affordability target gate. The government has performed a thorough analysis of the proposed price and concluded this contract award is a very good buy for the taxpayer.”

At this stage, the programme is running according to an accelerated schedule, and so is free from the delays and technical issues that can frequently mire large-scale aircraft development programmes, leading to cost overruns and budget blow outs.

Speaking more recently at the time of the PDR announcement, Tim Healy, CRH Program Director at Sikorsky, stated: “The successful Air Vehicle PDR confirms the program is on the right track and marks a significant step for the CRH program.”

He continued: “Sikorsky and the USAF are well aligned in this collaboration effort and this successful PDR moves us closer to bringing this vital aircraft to the warfighter. [Our team is] not only operating to an accelerated schedule, but the preliminary design that we have achieved here has well prepared us for detailed aircraft design and subsequent production.”

Reducing risk

The aim of the PDR was to further reduce risk on the project to achieve the air force’s accelerated schedule. According to Sikorsky this has been achieved, with the successful PDR demonstrating that the aircraft’s overall design meets the system requirements and clears the way for the next phase of the programme to begin.

In addition to the four HH-60W helicopters being delivered under the EMD contract, Sikorsky will also supply training components in the form of six aircrew and maintenance training systems. The training suite includes devices that span full motion simulators and discrete aircraft systems used for training, such as hoist and landing gear.

"The USAF is expected to procure 112 HH-60W helicopters."

Sikorsky believes it is now also on track to conduct the PDR for this training system three months earlier than originally scheduled, something that will further reduce risk in achieving the USAF’s accelerated schedule and enable quicker delivery of the aircraft to the air force rescue units.

Successful Training System Requirements Review (SRR) and System Functional Reviews (SFR) have already been carried out for the programme – back when the air vehicle SRR and SFRs were conducted in 2015. Together these reviews equated to agreement between the industry team and the USAF on more than 1,000 design requirements and 3,000 subsystem specifications.

Win-win

A major aspect of the successful completion of the PDR is that it unlocks the funds for a further five aircraft that will be delivered in the 2020 timeframe. These aircraft are designated as demonstration test article aircraft and will be used by programme officials to fully test the HH-60W design and subsystem requirements.

Sikorsky is also keen to complete development of the aircraft ahead of schedule as it unlocks a number of financial incentives for the company. The company believes it can complete development in the required timeframe and have the first flight tests of the aircraft in 2019, some six months ahead of schedule.

Currently the USAF is looking to have an initial operating capability with the HH-60W in 2021, with a full replacement of the Pave Hawk fleet slated for 2029.