At least 30 companies, from aerospace and defense giants to small contractors, have expressed interest in providing the U.S. Navy’s next-generation helicopter training system.
They’d just like to know what the Navy wants and when and how the service plans to pay for it.
For several years, the Navy has been mulling how to improve the rotorcraft training it provides its own aviators and those of the U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard through Training Wing 5’s helicopter squadrons at Naval Air Station Whiting Field northeast of Pensacola in Florida’s Panhandle. Earlier this year, it issued a “sources sought” notice for what it dubbed an Advanced Helicopter Training System. That followed a similar initiative in 2013.
In March, representatives of 30 companies headed to Whiting Field for what several described as yet another set of Industry Day briefings on the rotary-wing training (which covers Marine V-22 tiltrotor pilots as well as the three services’ helicopter aviators). Given the number of visits there, it seems little new was learned.
The Jan. 28 “sources sought” solicitation (No. N00019-16-R-0029) said the Navy expected to issue a request for proposals by the end of this year for the Advanced Helicopter Training System and to issue a contract next year for work to start in 2018.
“We’re still waiting to see what their requirements will be,” said one senior official of a U.S. defense contractor involved in rotorcraft production and training.
Time is growing short to hit the targets of this year and next, given government budget planning and possible slowdowns in government decision-making that occur in presidential election years.
A few things are clear.
One is that the Navy’s interest has grabbed the attention of most players in the aviation and training markets.
Attendees at the March industry day included representatives from the aerospace and defense giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin as well as General Dynamics.
Training bigwigs CAE and FlightSafety International had people there, as did Frasca International, Textron’s TRU Simulation + Training, Bristow Group and Doss Aviation. (The last two are teamed with Leonardo on a prospective bid for the Navy work).
Rotorcraft makers Airbus Helicopters, Bell Helicopter, Leonardo and MD Helicopters sent folks.
Also attending were representatives of DynCorp, Israel’s Elbit Systems, Rockwell Collins, Textron Systems and L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace (the Navy’s current training contractor). A dozen smaller companies also sent representatives.
Another thing that seems clear is that this isn’t a new aircraft acquisition program. Most industry officials interviewed said the Navy wants an end-to-end training solution that would allow it to modernize its trainer fleet and program (including cockpit procedures for trainers and simulators).
The Navy also is looking for new business models to consider in meeting those requirements. The service simply does not have funds in procurement budgets to buy new aircraft and can’t expect to get them in the years ahead. So it is looking seriously at services-type contracts in which it gets the helicopters and other new equipment but spares itself the capital expenditures.
Together, these factors have the various companies scrambling to find the right collection of partners to prevail in a future competition.
As indicated above, Leonardo’s AgustaWestland North America already has selected teammates. In addition to Bristow and Doss Aviation, it has tapped Genesys Aerosystems to develop and obtain an FAA supplemental type certificate for an instrument-flight-rules configuration of the AW119KX. That aircraft has been branded the TH-119 for the Navy initiative.
“We as a team would provide the requisite number of aircraft, the required number of training devices and simulators, the ground instruction and the maintenance,” said Robert LaBelle, CEO of AgustaWestland North America, adding that would allow the Navy to combine under a single contract work currently done under four.
Given its aviation portfolio, Textron could forge a proposed solution that includes Bell and TRU.
Lockheed Martin has a track record of military training-services contracts (in Australia, Singapore and the U.K.), as does Airbus with its UH-72A Lakota contracts with the U.S. Army and with other nations’ militaries.
A big draw for potential bidders is the Navy’s expression that it is interested in a training contract of five to 10 years, though it left the door open to the possibility of achieving that with single-year contracts with one-year options or with multi-year contracts.
The service has stated clearly that it does want new trainers with FAA type certificates. That could mitigate the business risks for potential contractors, since they might be able to sell or lease the trainers to civil operators after they come off the Navy contract.
That would be aided further by maintaining the aircraft under an FAA-approved maintenance program and having that work done at FAA-approved repair stations. The current fleet of TH-57s is maintained at FAA repair stations, according to the service.
Key concerns include the growing obsolescence of its fleet of TH-57 trainers and the mismatch between those steam-gauge aircraft and the advanced-instrumentation helicopters newly minted rotary-wing aviators will fly when they join the fleet.
But the biggest concern might be the novelty of the contract options the Navy is considering. The service stressed that the Jan. 28 “sources sought” notice was a “market research tool being used to identify potential and eligible firms, of all sizes, prior to determining the method of acquisition and issuance of a solicitation.”
Some potential bidders said they believe the Navy has used the data gathered in response to that solicitation to identify a range of contract options to pursue for the training work and submitted them to senior acquisition officials in the service.
“We think that’s already happened,” said the senior defense contractor executive, and LaBelle said the same. The question is how much tolerance the Navy has for risk in the training program.
“If you ultimately ask one prime contractor to provide a comprehensive, end-to-end solution, and that contractor fails to perform, the senior defense executive said, “you have jeopardized the flow of helicopter and V-22 pilots to the Navy and Marine Corps.”
“You have to weigh that decision and its associated risks very carefully,” this executive said, “especially in today’s geopolitical environment.”
In a briefing at the March Industry Day, the Navy said it has 44 TH-57Bs (which are used to train basic helicopter flying) and 75 TH-57Cs (which are used for advanced instrument and tactical training).
The Navy has not specified whether it wants single- or twin-engine helicopters as new trainers. It has said that if a bidder proposes a mixed fleet of trainers, at least one type should be FAA-certified for single-pilot IFR operations.
“They don’t seem to care about single-engine or multi-engine,” said one consultant monitoring the Navy initiative.
The daily flight schedule requires the use of 65 to 75 aircraft a day, the service said, and a typical flight includes one instructor and one student in the front seat with an additional student in the right rear seat.
The Navy has an average of 185 instructors, all of whom are Navy officers. That is not expected to change under the new training regime.
Whiting Field trains about 500 rotary-wing aviators; in the last several years, 11 to 17% of them have been destined to fly V-22s. The service has a surge capacity of 600 students a year. Class sizes range from 20 to 40 students, with 18 classes per year. R&WI