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A conversation with Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell and John Groth

A conversation with Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell and John Groth
Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell (left) and John Groth (right)
Interview conducted by Sikorsky (a Lockheed Martin company)

The Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell and John Groth acumulates between them more than 65 years of helicopter experience. Bill is part of Sikorsky’s efforts to advance their X2™ Technology as the best solution to meet the United States Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) needs. John is the chief pilot at Sikorsky West Palm Beach facility supporting X2 Technology development along with the advancement of the BLACK HAWK®, including Improved Turbine Engine (ITE) integrations. He also supports Company’s newly designed and built combat search and rescue helicopter for the U.S. Air Force, the HH-60W Jolly Green II

With an active production line, a mature well-established supply chain, and an involving digital factory Sikorsky will continue to provide solutions to 21st Century security challenges. Efforts to support BLACK HAWK modernization are driving down risk for the FLRAA program while improving current helicopters’ relevance in future operations by increasing reach, survivability, lethality, and sustainment. These efforts are aligned to:

  • Evolving data driven sustainment solutions. 

In this Q&A, the Sikorsky test pilots Bill and John share their experiences in flying the BLACK HAWK, modernization efforts for the enduring fleet and the DEFIANT X®, which Sikorsky and Boeing are proposing for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program.

A conversation with Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell and John Groth

Question: As someone who has flown the BLACK HAWK in various missions, tell us about what makes the BLACK HAWK so versatile and reliable?

John Groth: Sikorsky hit a “grand slam” in the design of this aircraft that gave us a very strong base to continue to develop and advance. From its initial implementation as a U.S. Army Assault Helicopter, the BLACK HAWK has grown into a multi-mission utility aircraft that supports maritime operations, search and rescue, and various commercial applications to include the FIRE HAWK. The BLACK HAWK was specifically designed and proven to perform and thrive in the harshest conditions. It’s this design that allows for such a wide mission spectrum for the HAWK family of aircraft and results in such impressive mission readiness numbers for our operators all over the world.

Question: Why do you think the BLACK HAWK has remained so relevant for more than 40 years and is poised to continue its role as a utility helicopter worldwide well into the 2070s?

John: In its size/class, there is basically nothing the aircraft can’t do. Although they share the same heritage, the BLACK HAWK of today is very different from the BLACK HAWK of 40 years ago. Over time, we have been able to use new and innovative technologies to improve capabilities with things like improved rotor blades, upgraded cockpits/avionics, more powerful engines, and stronger airframe components. Those upgrades have allowed us to stay ahead of the constantly evolving/expanding mission requirements of the utility helicopter world.

A conversation with Sikorsky test pilots Bill Fell and John Groth

Question: Tell us how BLACK HAWK modernization efforts will enable new capabilities for the U.S. Army?   

John: We are currently working on a variety of enhancements in coordination with the Army that will continue the BLACK HAWK legacy for another 40 years.  The Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) will result in a significant power/performance increase compared to the current BLACK HAWK.

Advanced Vehicle Management Systems technologies will enable increased survivability and effectiveness in future operations by reducing pilot workload through the automation of basic flight tasks. Our ongoing Modular Open System Approach (MOSA) team is developing a “supervised autonomy” solution that will enable the BLACK HAWK to enter into the single piloted or even zero piloted (UAV) world.

We are working on a variety of mission sensor, cockpit display, and flight control system upgrade kits that will enable zero/zero military or commercial operations. These are just a few of the ongoing projects that represent growth of the BLACK HAWK into new mission areas and capabilities in order to support future requirements.

The FLRAA CD&RR project agreements under the AMTC OTA were awarded to Bell Textron Incorporated, and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.
These competitively awarded OTA agreements consist of risk reduction activities that combine government research with input from industry partners to inform the future development and procurement of the FLRAA weapons system.
Deliverables include initial conceptual designs, requirements feasibility, and trade studies using model based systems engineering.
These CD&RR agreements will extend over two years, informing the final Army requirements and the program of record planned for competition in 2022.
Photo by Michelle Miller (Industry).

Question: How do you envision the BLACK HAWK and DEFIANT X would operate together in the field?

John: I see them being very complimentary, each with distinct and overlapping capabilities. I see DEFIANT X expanding capability for helicopter missions that require higher speed and longer range with the BLACK HAWK continuing to provide its core capability with advancements. DEFIANT X will maximize the Joint Commander’s reach while the BLACK HAWK supports efforts that enable Joint Maneuver.

Question: What’s it like to fly the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 DEFIANT, the DEFIANT X technology demonstrator based on X2™ technology that the companies are offering for the U.S. Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA)?

Bill Fell: The DEFIANT is a great helicopter with a long list of accomplishments. The roll rate is crisp and sporty, the acceleration is exceptional, the low-speed maneuvering is as good as any helicopter and the demonstrated external lift is superb. There are two distinct ways to fly DEFIANT:

  • You can fly it with the prop (the rotating blade on the back of the aircraft) engaged. In this mode we still fly it like a helicopter in the low-speed environment. That helps with acceleration or pitch pointing the aircraft. This feature has awesome safety implications. The pilot can provide some reverse prop to keep a nose-low attitude to get a better view of everything in front of them. This is helpful in obstacle rich environments not only for combat, but also for any application
  • You can fly DEFIANT with the prop disengaged. This adds amazing survivability as the tail of the aircraft is no longer flight critical like, for example, a tail rotor. If DEFIANT takes significant combat damage to the prop, the pilot can disengage the clutch and fly home at speeds higher than helicopters fly today
infography Sikorsky SB>1 DEFIANT
The SB>1 DEFIANT produced by Sikorsky-Boeing is one of two aircraft selected for further testing under the JMR-TD program, a precursor to the Army’s Future Vertical Lift effort.
Graphic by Boeing.

Having the ability to fly DEFIANT with and without the prop engaged also allows us to manage the acoustic footprint based on the environment and greatly increases survivability.

What’s amazing about this aircraft is how quickly pilots take to it in the simulator and in the aircraft. The robust flight controls provided in the full authority system even make it easy for those with no flight experience to fly the aircraft. The flight controls in DEFIANT X will add all the bells and whistles expected of a modern aircraft. It will make flying the aircraft a lower-workload task, so the pilots can focus on the mission.

Question: What makes DEFIANT different from other helicopters you’ve flown?

Bill: It’s the way you size the power requirements of the aircraft. In an X2 technology aircraft, we chose installed power based on airspeed requirement rather than a specific hover condition. This is more power than a comparably sized helicopter. As a result, you have more excess power in the hover, which provides snappy maneuverability, rapid vertical climbs and amazing single-engine capability. Vertical climb capability is often considered an excellent predictor of helicopter maneuverability. In DEFIANT, we hovered at a mission weight with one engine at idle and the other engine peaking below its torque limit. We’ve also climbed vertically, quickly at mission weight. DEFIANT’s maneuverability is impressive and sure to provide better survivability and improved safety.

Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone
PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 31, 2020) Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter lands on the flight deck during cross-deck landing training aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG67) during Keen Sword 21.
Keen Sword is an example of the strength of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the foundation of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region for more than 60 years.
The relationships built and maintained during these events are critical to our shared capability to respond to contingencies at a moment’s notice.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Santiago Navarro.

Question: Tell us about some of the recent mission profile flights you’ve flown to demonstrate the helicopter’s capabilities?

Bill: We have flown DEFIANT into a very tight confined area landing several times. The capability and footprint of the helicopter made this task even easier than doing the same in a BLACK HAWK. Maneuvering, approaching and departing the landing zone, was better with that crisp aircraft response providing the ability to carve a path through the trees with precision and ease – and problem-free.

We also flew DEFIANT 700-miles to the Army Aviation Association of America annual summit in Nashville. The aircraft performed flawlessly there and back with the plan executed with no deviations. I was proud to be a part of this team effort that involved all elements of leadership, engineering and maintenance to be able to display our aircraft.

The Sikorsky test pilots Bill and John in their own words

Sikorsky MH-60R SEAHAWK
An infographic created about the MH-60R Sea Hawk Helicopter.
U.S. Navy graphic by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Morgan K. Nall.

Bill: I served in the U.S. Army for 20-years in various pilot roles: Scout & Attack Helicopter Pilot, Instructor Pilot, Fixed Wing Pilot and Experimental Test Pilot.

After the Army I joined Sikorsky where I have been developing several different rotorcraft for the past 15 years.

I was fortunate to join the X2 Technology Demonstrator Team in 2009 and from there helped to start the S-97 RAIDER program. I flew all the initial development on the S-97 and remain involved in the program today.

I was also around for the start of the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) program and to date have flown on every flight of the program with SB>1 DEFIANT.

I consider myself to be exceptionally lucky as a test pilot to have a central role in three once-in-a-career programs: RAH66 Comanche, S-97 RAIDER and SB>1 DEFIANT. I am excited to use my experience from those programs as we design, refine and fly the DEFIANT X and RAIDER X aircraft.

Sikorsky HH-60W Jolly Green II
An HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopter lands at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Sept. 1, 2021 for an overnight stay while en route from Moody AFB, Georgia, to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.
The helicopter and its crew visited the base so that members of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center helicopter programs office could get a firsthand look at one of the aircraft and the warfighters that they directly support.
U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth.

John: I graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1986 with a degree in aerospace engineering.

After graduation, I served in the U.S. Navy for 14 years prior to being hired by Sikorsky to their test pilots team in 2000. I’ve had the privilege of flying Sikorsky helicopters for the majority of my 35-plus year flying career.

During my 22 years with Sikorsky test pilots team, I’ve been lucky to work with an outstanding group of very intelligent and talented people while being part of the flight test teams on numerous programs including BLACK HAWK, Seahawk, S-76, S-92, CH-53K, CH-148 Cyclone, S-97 RAIDER, and the SB>1 DEFIANT.

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