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‘For all the marbles’: Black Hawk replacement decision looms for Sikorsky in 2022

Idaho Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on July 21, 2020 near Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur)
January 01, 2022

Paul Lemmo is a bit anxious heading into the new year as the Sikorsky president awaits a Pentagon decision that could produce thousands of Connecticut jobs for decades.

With Sikorsky’s Black Hawk the aerial workhorse of the U.S. military for more than 40 years, the Lockheed Martin subsidiary is competing with Bell to win the contract to replace the storied helicopter with a bigger, faster and more powerful alternative under the U.S. Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft competition.

The Department of Defense has yet to announce when a decision will be made with Lemmo not expecting news of the award before July.

Sikorsky and Boeing are teaming up on Defiant-X, based on a Sikorsky design that has twin, stacked sets of rotors spinning in opposite directions for greater stability, maneuverability and lift. The counter-rotating blades allow Sikorsky to swap out the stabilizing rear rotor on standard helicopters in favor of a propeller to generate greater speed.

Bell is countering with its V-280 Valor, which like its existing Osprey aircraft, takes off like a helicopter then swivels rotors vertically to fly forward like a turbo-prop airplane. Lockheed Martin was a co-developer of the V-280 prior to acquiring Sikorsky in 2015.

Two radically different options for the Department of Defense — and from two manufacturers that made it to the final “fly off” as much based on their ability to deliver as the technical promise of their designs.

“That source selection decision is for all the marbles,” Lemmo said during an interview last week in Stratford. “We certainly feel good — but we certainly will feel nervous about it, coming up on that decision.”

‘Not a cargo-delivery aircraft’

It is the kind of high-stakes competition Connecticut has experienced recently. General Dynamics has been on a hiring boom at its Electric Boat subsidiary in Groton as it prepares to build a fleet of new ballistic missile submarines for the U.S. Navy. After losing out as prime contractor, rival Huntington Ingalls Industries has been relegated to producing portions of the sub that will be barged to the Thames River for final assembly at Electric Boat.

Lemmo says he does not anticipate the Pentagon will propose any shared production with Bell, with the expectation that the contract will be a winner-take-all outcome. Sikorsky and Bell are also competing to make armed scout helicopters for the U.S. Army, with that decision still a few years away.

In touting Sikorsky’s capabilities, Lemmo points to the two assembly lines in Stratford. Running up one side, several Black Hawk helicopters are in varying stages of completion. On the other, Sikorsky workers are piecing together CH-53K King Stallion helicopters that are in the initial echelon of about 200 the Pentagon plans to order for the Marine Corps.

For the King Stallion, Lemmo said Sikorsky is using digital platforms to fuse design, production and maintenance to extend the lifespan of helicopters, and save the Pentagon money in the long run. He said Sikorsky and Boeing plan to refine those techniques further for Defiant X production.

“The innovation going into the manufacturing line, that’s driven by our push to have a digital threat from womb to tomb in our products — from design all the way through sustainment,” Lemmo said. “The learning curve that we would usually experience by the 100th aircraft, we’re now experiencing by the 20th aircraft. The CH-53K — we’ll have a much steeper learning curve than on the Black Hawk.”

Having built more than 4,000 Black Hawks and variants like the Seahawk, Sikorsky has proven it can produce, including during the intensified demands of war.

Sikorsky already has drawn up schematics on how the factory floor would look producing Defiant X helicopters and any other models that the Pentagon might want for across military branches.

“Black Hawks have dominated this assembly line for the last 45 years — what you’re now starting to see is the 53K,” said Michael Ambrose, vice president of enterprise business transformation at Sikorsky. “You’ll see the transition over the next couple of years.”

Workers will remain the most important cog in that factory, according to Bob Perchard, director of manufacturing engineering for Sikorsky, but with digital tools allowing them to assemble parts with exacting precision.

Many of those tools are evident on the floor today, from handheld torque wrenches that tighten rivets to precision specifications, to tablets that allow engineers to illustrate steps for workers to take in troubleshooting any issues that arise during assembly.

For the King Stallion, Defiant X and future models, Sikorsky designers are working to reduce the number of parts going into the helicopter — the Black Hawk has roughly 10,000 — through a number of techniques, including the use of composite materials as a replacement for metal parts. That also helps reduce the weight of the King Stallion, which is the biggest helicopter ever flown by the U.S. military.

The Pentagon’s decision will rest as much with pilots as those who plan out military budgets — and both Defiant-X and Valor have comparative advantages to offer.

Lemmo said while the Defiant-X does not match the Valor’s top speed, the helicopter can swoop into tight landing zones and quickly get back airborne, and maneuver nimbly otherwise while hovering — a key consideration for pilots carrying troops into hostile zones.

“This is a long-range assault mission — that’s what it is, it’s not a cargo-delivery aircraft.” Lemmo said. “In a drag race, their aircraft is faster, no doubt about it. In the total mission time, ours will be faster. It flies like a helicopter — it’ll get there quick and it can get into much tighter spaces, just like a Black Hawk.”

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(c) 2021 The Hour

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