For a while, Sikorsky and its HH-60U Black Hawk, and the Boeing/Leonardo team with its MH-139, have been at the forefront of the U.S. Air Force’s UH-1N replacement competition. But as the deadline for proposals passed mid-September, there was another contending aircraft in the running. Driven by a customized Garmin G5000H avionics suite, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s “Force Hawk” is also in contention to become the new helicopter the Air Force uses to protect intercontinental ballistic missile fields, among other mission sets.
Without a large sales or marketing effort surrounding its bid aircraft, Sierra Nevada Corp. went generally unnoticed for the year-plus it was developing its proposal. The systems integrator’s Force Hawk features a Garmin G5000H avionics suit with high resolution displays, a glass touchscreen interface, and access to remote audio and intercom flight management system.
The Air Force had originally wanted to sole-source the Huey replacement contract to Sikorsky for Black Hawks. The contract only became competitive when met with congressional opposition. It isn’t an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) like Sikorsky, Boeing or Leonardo, but Sierra Nevada does not view itself as an underdog, according to its director of business development, Jack Bailey.
“At face value, we looked at it from the perspective that if [the solicitation] does best suit a Black Hawk, it's a matter of whose Black Hawk,” Bailey told Avionics.
Not every UH-60 model is the best solution for the Air Force, he continued. That’s why Force Hawk is a UH-60L, with new components orchestrated by Sierra Nevada Corp.
“We thought that [if] the government … just followed their own solicitation criteria — what is the lowest risk, best value and provides the better, long-term lifecycle sustainment and lower costs — that ours would surface as the winner,” Bailey said.
In June, it was reported by Avionics sister publication Defense Daily that the Air Force had added a requirement for ADS-B Out in the competition. The service reportedly told bidders to include the technology in their proposals “to enhance safety and navigation efficiency.” In a statement, the Air Force said the main driving force behind that added requirement was the FAA’s 2020 mandate, as the aircraft’s mission set would include protecting intercontinental ballistic missile fields located throughout the National Airspace System (NAS).
“Principally for us, [we choose the avionics suite because] it was the fact that it's NexGen 2020-compliant now. So it has the ADS-B Out capability, and it's compliant and ready to go now. And it could be integrated into this Black Hawk and be successful,” Bailey said. “It's our understanding that not all offerers have a NexGen 2020-compliant cockpit, or that there are challenges with it. We had looked at a lot of different versions of what type of cockpit and flight deck to put in it. The Garmin product surfaced in all the analysis as the right way to go.”
According to Bailey, other new Force Hawk features include a GE Aviation T700-GE-701D engine, and new gearboxes, a new main rotor and a new tail rotor. The aircraft also features a Breeze Eastern hoist, a fast rope insertion and extraction system, air survivability equipment capability and a FLIR Sensor Star Safire 380-HDc.
“As an integrator, we can step back and go, 'What is the most effective, most cost efficient thing for you?' We do the analysis up front, bring the best of breed concept together and provide that to the customer,” Bailey said. “So why did we [bid]? Because that fits the nature of exactly what Sierra Nevada is. We are an integrator house. We have done this before.”
Bailey said that prior experience includes the multi-role aircraft the company provided for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and planning and approaches that went into a U.S. Army program. From those, he said, came lessons learned that Sierra Nevada Corp. applied to its Force Hawk program. The company has learned how to choose teammates, how to identify components and manage parts and supply, and how to produce a deliverable that has been integrated and tested.
“It's the notion of you're not just providing an airplane or an aircraft; you've got to approach it from a lifecycle support perspective. Because there's a cost to field the airplane,” Bailey said. “Then there's the cost to sustain it over some length of time. The analysis goes into the types of parts, how many people at what location, how do you stand up a site, what does a warranty look like? All these things that come to bear at once.”
The Force Hawk team includes Ace Aeronautics and L3 Technologies. Bailey said Sierra Nevada teamed with the former because it had subject matter expertise, contractual relationship and technical data on the Garmin avionics suite. The company also had experience integrating it into a UH-60. L3 Technologies, Bailey said, was a good fit for a partnership because of its experience in training, training systems and training simulation. He said Sierra Nevada and the two entities had been cultivating a relationship over the past few years, which yielded beneficial collaboration.
“There's a synergy; there is an understanding of cost,” he said. “There's an understanding of how we do business.”
One company notably missing from the team is Sikorsky, the airframe OEM. Does this mean sustained part support and other maintenance areas would go unfulfilled? And since Force Hawk is an older model UH-60, wouldn’t the aircraft require additional maintenance sooner, driving up cost? According to Bailey, that won’t be a problem.
“There's no new or out-of-the-ordinary training. There are no new or peculiar items in terms of ground support equipment or parts. There's nothing that needs to be procured, bought, put in place that doesn't exist in your inventory now,” Bailey said. “It's not tech data and things like that, that is out of the ordinary that you would have to go find somewhere else. Most of the parts are available in the system now. There are no obsolescence issues with this airplane. And essentially these are costs, the costs associated with the UH-60 Lima, everybody is familiar with.”
If the Air Force bought a new aircraft, he continued, an unfamiliar model could bring unexpected associated costs, along with new negotiations. A new aircraft would also come with engineering costs, which are not necessary with Force Hawk, Bailey said. The U.S. Defense Department already has hundreds of UH-60Ls in the system, and Bailey estimated that 95% of the parts, components and items needed to maintain and sustain the aircraft also exist within the department’s inventory or supply systems. If not, a contract can be acquired, and anything related the Garmin suite could be procured commercially. Bailey said Sierra Nevada believes the Force Hawk is more than just a “used car.”