When designers at Bell helicopter began collaborating on their proposal for the US Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program, they threw two big pictures up on a wall for inspiration.
“One was a picture of a OH-58 Kiowa covered in ice and snow,” said Frank Lazzara, 360 Invictus Sales & Strategy Director.
“The other one a 58 in Iraq, where it withstood a kaboob, a sandstorm, next to a little three-man tent, where the crew slept while the aircraft stood there in this horrendous sandstorm, just covered in it … it started up the next day.
“We wanted an aircraft that’s going to deliver reliability and be able to be maintained in the field, in the environment where the army lives,” he said. “That would be our focus.”
Lazzara knows the value of reliability in the field. Prior to joining Bell, he spent 26 years in the US military flying several helicopter types, mostly in special operations in hot spots like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
With the US Army’s target price of US$30 million per aircraft, the Bell’s 360 Invictus prototype attack helicopter is being designed to fulfill current and future US Army requirements, and it faces tough competition from its rival Sikorsky, the Raider X.
While the latter features a double rotor and push propellor — a radical design which gives it exceptional straight-line speed — the Invictus is a more conventional design, says Lazzara, speaking from his home in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“I wouldn’t call it a simple design — it’s still an advanced aircraft. It will be a really neat war machine, but we tried to keep the technological approach traditional, but with a lift-sharing wing.”
Some technology in the Invictus has been carried over, such as the main rotor design (a scaled down version of the five-blade rotor in the Bell 525 Relentless), hydraulics and actuators, “wherever we could use things we felt we could execute.”
It also features a tandem cockpit configuration, unlike Sikorsky’s Raider X, which opted for a side-by-side cockpit to carry larger internal payloads.
The single-engine Invictus also sports the latest fly-by-wire technology, a stubbed wing that Lazzara says assumes 50% of the lift responsibility at cruise speeds, an advanced GE turbine engine called the T901, a sliding weapons bay designed to handle current and future weapons and keeps the aircraft sleek, a retractable landing gear and a ducted tail rotor.
On the avionics and digital backbone front, Bell chose Collins Aerospace, the same firm that provides the technology for the nifty A/MH-6M Littlebirds used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
“We weren’t designing through a soda straw,” says Lazzara, “our own little Gucci widget that, we were going to try and sell the Army. We designed something that we thought would fit into their overall portfolio and meet their requirements … not just at acquisition but through the life cycle of the aircraft.”
Unique to the design of the Invictus is Bell’s use of virtual reality technology.
Utilizing an augmented reality headset and using real data from the aircraft through the digital thread, one can perform tasks with virtual reality gloves, helping identify maintenance procedures or identify obstructions or choke points, says Lazzara.
“Once he puts the virtual reality headset on, he is now immersed in the actual cockpit and can look at things or make ergonomic recommendations.
“Doing all that at the point of design, it’s very advantageous to the end user.”
Lazzara says the Army’s timeline for the first flight of the Invictus prototype is September, 2022, admittedly an aggressive schedule the company will meet.
While he would not address any specific comparisons to the Sikorsky’s performance, I asked Lazzara, being a veteran special ops pilot, what he would want in an attack/recon aircraft.
“I would put it this way … the most important thing is supporting the war fighter on the ground. I want something that is going to show up at the same rates that the 58D showed up in combat. Over 90% availability over a long period of time. That aircraft was there.
“You ask anybody on the ground, what was the aircraft that was there to help them the most? I can’t attest to what they would say, but I think the common answer is the Kiowa Warrior,” he said.
“So I want that balance between high performance, something that makes the job of the crew easier, so that you better support the war fighter, that human-machine interface, which we’re carefully addressing.”
The Invictus will do that job with the aid of a government furnished 2omm cannon on the nose, and an integrated munitions launcher that would accommodate both current and future munitions in the pipeline, says Lazzara.
“It has to have the ability to carry internally in order to get to the speeds we want, regardless of the aircraft configuration … drag is still a big concern for any aircraft.”
To help solve that, Bell came up with a new technology to harness extra power.
A Supplemental Power Unit that adds additional horsepower when extra speed is needed, will give the Invictus speeds in excess of 185 KTAS, a combat radius of 135 nautical miles, with over 90 minutes on station and a 1,400 lb. payload.
The fly-by-wire technology is also an added bonus, says Lazzara.
“Fly-by-wire isn’t a new technology, but there are some advantages in that, fewer friction points. You don’t have cables running the length of the aircraft. I mean, you’re sending an electronic signal to actuate a electro-hydraulic servo, so there are a lot advantages to that.
“It gives you a lot of knobs to turn with fly-by-wire, an upgradability and expandability and capability that, a more traditional flight control system doesn’t give you,” he said.
Asked if the Covid-19 situation had any effect on the development of the 360 Invictus, Lazzara responded:
“We’re a defense company, so we have that level of priority to continue working. Bell is supporting military and civilian customers around the world, so we have not slowed down and will not pause, certainly not on the military side.”
In closing, Lazzara lauded Bell’s design and testing regime.
“I’d just like to reiterate, the amount of rigor and testing we do on all of our aircraft here at Bell. When our aircraft get into the air and start flight testing, it has already completed every last possible stress test, or dynamic test on the ground — it’s very extensive. (And) it’s a great example of what we’re capable of doing in a short period of time.”
Lazzara says the 360 Invictus makes a compelling argument for capability, “a robust aircraft that is going to endure through its lifetime, living in the mud.
“There’s this long range, high-speed breach mission that the army needs this aircraft to help with, but there’s still that other, pretty high percentage of the time it’s going to support the ground force commander as a conventional scout, or light attack aircraft. And I think the aircraft would be exceptional at both.”