Spirit delivers first V-280 tiltrotor aircraft fuselage to Bell (+video)

Spirit AeroSystems on Tuesday delivered a new product to a new customer.

Bell Helicopter took delivery of its first V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft fuselage at a ceremony at Spirit AeroSystems. The V-280 is Fort Worth-based Bell’s answer to the Army’s next generation of airborne medium-class troop carriers.

Bell and Lockheed Martin are competing against a Boeing and Sikorsky team in the Department of Defense’s Future Vertical Lift program. The program aims to replace about 2,000 medium-class utility and attack helicopters in the Army’s fleet.

Bell CEO John Garrison said in his remarks to a couple hundred Spirit employees attending the ceremony that Spirit delivers reliable aircraft parts on time and at cost, and that’s key to Bell and Lockheed winning a future Army contract.

“You all know how to make an aircraft and make it affordable,” Garrison said. “We need that. … We hit the price point (and) it’s game, set, match. The competition doesn’t have a chance.

“So that’s what we’re focused on, and you’ve helped us.”

Spirit officials said it took the company just less than two years to design and manufacture the V-280’s composite fuselage, delivery of which was about a month ahead of schedule, Garrison added.

Garrison said the fuselage will be transported to Bell’s Amarillo, Texas, plant, where the V-280 demonstrator will be assembled. First flight, he said, is expected in September 2017.

The Amarillo plant is also where Bell assembles the V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft it developed for the Marines and which has been in operation for eight years.

Garrison said Bell – a subsidiary of Textron Inc., Textron Aviation’s parent company – will try to push forward the timeline of the Defense Department’s Future Vertical Lift program. As it is now, he said, the program is looking for replacement aircraft starting in about 20 years. He hopes with an operational V-280 in the next two years, replacement could happen sooner.

“What Spirit was able to do here … was to go from the design to building this in 22 months, which is frankly light speed under the existing DoD process,” Garrison said in an interview after the ceremony.

“We’re going to push the system to bring that much sooner, much closer … so that the great folks here at Spirit can build thousands of these aircrafts over time.”

For now, the V-280 doesn’t represent an increase in Spirit’s defense work. Defense accounts for about 3 percent to 5 percent of the Wichita-based aerostructure supplier’s overall business, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The company primarily builds large pieces of commercial airliners for Boeing, including the 737 fuselage, as well as large parts for Airbus commercial jets.

Spirit’s current defense programs include the Navy PA-8 Poseidon, a derivative of the 737; the KC-46 air refueling tanker, and the Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter program for the Navy and the Marines.

Spirit CEO Larry Lawson said he is interested in increasing his company’s defense business.

“To walk around this great piece of work today … I think this is a transformation,” Lawson said during the delivery ceremony. “I think this is an opportunity to transform into a better job in the defense of our nation.”

Phil Anderson, senior vice president for Spirit Defense, said in an interview after the ceremony that the company’s quick work on the V-280 fuselage shows that it can translate its commercial aircraft work to military aircraft work.

”This program represents a broad spectrum of Spirit’s capabilities and what we can bring to defense programs,” he said.

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.