…And Eurocopter Makes 3: EADS To Compete for $2B U.S. LUH Program
In a recent DID post, we covered the US Army’s upcoming Light Utility Helicopter competition, which aims to replace the old UH-1H Hueys and OH-58 Kiowa aircraft in the U.S. Army and National Guard with approximately 320 new LUH helicopters between 2006-2015. These commercial, Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) Type Standard Certified helicopters will fill the niche missions in which the Army’s standard UH-60 Black Hawk‘s size, capability, and operating expenses may be unnecessary, performing a wide range of general support missions in the United States and overseas. Transport of personnel and supplies, disaster relief operations, medical evacuation, reconnaissance, drug interdiction, and homeland security will all be likely tasks.
Now there’s a third contestant in the ring. Airbus parent EADS declined to compete for the recently awarded $2.2 billion Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter contract, but they’ve thrown their hat in the ring for the LUH – and they may have a winner.
Our last post covered the two main American contenders: Lockheed Martin and MD Helicopters with its patented NOTAR(NO TAil Rotor) MD-900 Explorer, and Bell Textron with the “improved civilian UH-1” Bell 210.
The Bell 210 offers extensive commonality with the UH-1 fleet it replaces, which is a major plus in terms of add-ons, training and a more widespread support network. It also offers performance improvements, as well as lower operating costs than its predecessor.
The MD-900 Explorer offers a number of features designed to improve crashworthiness and survivability, a large flat floor space and rear hatch that assist in rapid loading and role changes, and ready-made selections of optional equipment from its law enforcement and U.S. Coast Guard incarnations. Not to mention their revolutionary NOTAR system that reduces pilot workload and lowers the helicopter’s external noise signature. When combined with its low length and rotor diameters, this feature also enables the MD Explorer to fly more safely in confined zones like forest clearings, canyons, mountain valleys, and urban areas.
In response, EADS North America and its American Eurocopter business unit will offer the UH-145, a variant of its existing Eurocopter EC145. The helicopter is outfitted with an advanced avionics suite that includes a “glass” (digital screen) cockpit for flight and navigation instrument display. The EC145 is already FAA Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) certified, and safety features include redundant hydraulic and electrical systems. The UH-145’s large open cabin provides strong flexibility with seating configurations for up to nine passengers, or two stretchers for MEDEVAC (Medical EVACuation) missions.
American Eurocopter helicopters (though not necessarily the EC145) are operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, as well as police departments, sheriff’s offices et. al. The EC145 itself has been deployed in a variety of roles in Europe and the USA, however, including medical, offshore, law enforcement and paramilitary/security uses.
Comparatively, all 3 helicopters share twin-engine designs and provisions for external cargo hooks. The UH-145 is longer than the MD-900 (at 42.7 ft. it’s close to the UH-1 Huey, vs. 32.33 ft for the MD-900), with a rotor diameter smaller than the Huey but larger than the MD-900 (42.7 ft. vs. 48 ft. for the Huey and just 33.8 feet for the MD-900). It offers slightly more main cabin space than the MD-900 (213 cubic ft. vs.173 cubic ft.), as well as longer range (370 vs. 260 nautical miles at sea level), and about 500 lbs. more load capacity (4,000 vs. 3,500). Note that the load capacity figure can be somewhat misleading, however, as theoretical maximum load capacity may leave the machine with little to no range. To their great credit, MDHI has put a full set of performance curves on line, while its competitors have not. Sling-rated weights are equal between the UH-145 and MD-900 at 3,000 lbs. The MD-900 benefits from a better maximum operating altitude (20,000 ft. vs. 18,000 ft.), which is significant if one contemplates potential operating zones like the Andes, Iran, or Afghanistan. Again, however, what one can actually do with a helicopter at altitude depends on performance curves not flat figures.
While it doesn’t possess the Bell 210’s exceptional compatibility or MDHI’s patented NOTAR system, the UH-145 has one important ace up its sleeve that matters a lot in combat-related situations: high-set main and tail rotors allow safe loading and unloading through the main side doors and rear-fuselage clamshell doors, even while the rotors are turning. That “back door” capability has a number of uses in a military context, and could prove to be an important design feature. Among the competitors, only the MD-900 Explorer NOTAR can match this capability and it does not use the convenient clamshell arrangement of the UH-145.
EADS North America will lead the effort and act as the prime contractor for the UH-145 team. Production will be performed in the U.S. by American Eurocopter, which has been building and supporting helicopters in the US for more than 30 years at its production and assembly sites in Columbus, MS and Grand Prairie, TX.
As EADS faces formidable barriers to U.S. defense contracts given German and French foreign policies, and protectionist jousting between Boeing and EADS subsidiary Airbus. The cancelled KC-767 tanker deal has given EADS a window with its Airbus KC-330, however, and its recent investment in Mobile, AL says that the U.S. market is one EADS intends to fight for.
The US Army now has an fairly clear set of alternatives before it. Go with the tried, true and well-supported Bell 210? Pick the compact MD-900 with its cutting-edge NOTAR advantages and rear door, and help ensure more choices in the US industrial base for future helicopter programs? Or choose the UH-145 with its load and range advantages and clamshell doors, and offer a diplomatic olive branch to what is likely to be a center-right German government by the time a decision is made?
Choices, choices… This much is clear: the LUH competition has just become a very interesting race.
UPDATE: Eurocopter DID have a winner on its hands, thanks to a strong team that included Sikorsky.