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Pentagon planners are looking to replace Sikorsky’s Black Hawk, middle-aged and slower than the next generation of helicopters

UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crews from 3rd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas, Dec. 12, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)

The Black Hawk, the workhorse in wartime and in natural disasters, is facing a challenge familiar to those in middle age as a new and faster helicopter swoops in to take its place.

Its manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp., is working with Boeing to develop a utility helicopter that flies at double the speed and twice as far as the Black Hawk. In a competition for a Pentagon contract, they are facing off against Bell, the manufacturer of utility helicopters during the Vietnam War, to design and build the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft.

Sikorsky’s entrant is the Defiant X, which the Stratford manufacturer says is being designed to last 50 years. A decision by the Pentagon is expected in mid-2022, said Chris Van Buiten, vice president at Sikorsky. It’s on track to be in the field by 2030.

A replacement helicopter does not spell the end of the Black Hawk, which will continue flying for the Army for “at least another 40 years,” he said. xxxx

“It will take decades to phase in the hundreds of aircraft required and have our customer start to migrate from the Black Hawk to this new platform,” Van Buiten said. “By no means is the Black Hawk done. But time scales are such that its replacement has to start now.”

“The Black Hawk probably shouldn’t be quaking in its boots,” said aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “It will be a couple of decades in production and half a century in service.”

Military planners responding to threats to global security “need aircraft that can do things beyond what they call the enduring fleet, the Black Hawks, the Apaches, the Chinooks,” said Jay Macklin, director of Future Vertical Lift at Sikorsky and a retired Army Black Hawk pilot.

Among their characteristics, next-generation helicopters will be able to penetrate enemy space, evade an enemy in hostile terrain and reduce exposure to enemy fire with speed and maneuverability. A flight control system will allow more reliable and safer operations in low-altitude environments with obstacles such as mountains or in uncertain conditions.

The Black Hawk flew successfully in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but threats in the future will likely include air defense systems, or “near peer-type threats,” Macklin said. In future conflicts with integrated air defense systems, speed, range and the capability of helicopters must increase, he said.

Sikorsky began with a first flight of the X2 Technology Demonstrator in 2008, ultimately reaching 250 knots, an unofficial record and twice the speed of a traditional helicopter.

The Army is focused on a second aircraft program: the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, a light-attack scout helicopter. On this project, Sikorsky is working with Bell to build prototypes. The Army could start fielding it by 2028, Sikorsky said.

“My only question is can both be funded?” Aboulafia said. “It looks like a classic case of economists not talking to engineers and vice versa.”

The Black Hawk, which dates to the 1970s, has generated billions in revenue for Lockheed Martin and its previous owner, United Technologies Corp., which sold Sikorsky to the Bethesda, Maryland, defense contractor for $9 billion in 2015. More than 4,000 Black Hawks are in operation.

As much as its military and manufacturing presence, the Black Hawk has a place in Connecticut.

“It paid the mortgage of thousands of families,” Van Buiten said. “There are subs in the sub shop named after Black Hawk. There are beers in the local brewery named after Black Hawk. Hopefully, we’ll have beers and subs in the sub shops named Defiant and it will employ generations like the Black Hawk has done.”

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