Boeing Considers Vertical Lift Future As Two Major Programs Wind Down

Bell Boeing MV-22 Ospreys

Bell Boeing MV-22 Ospreys also are modernized at Boeing’s Philadelphia facility. 

Credit: Brian Everstine/AW&ST

Boeing’s vertical lift division and its sprawling Philadelphia complex face an uncertain future as top company officials reimagine the complex and mission with two major production programs winding down.

The company’s 4,100-employee facility southwest of the city churns out CH-47 Chinooks for the U.S. Army and a handful of international customers as well as the fuselages for the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor it builds with Bell. Both of these programs are facing a sunset, with the U.S. Navy set to award a contract for shutting down Osprey production and the Chinook continuing at a minimum rate until the Army makes a decision on the future of its fleet.

  • The company’s defense CEO says Philadelphia can do more than assemble helicopters
  • Defiant X loss a major blow to Boeing's vertical lift future 

Boeing Defense, Space and Security CEO Ted Colbert tells Aviation Week that the company aims to build on its vertical lift expertise in the long run, but “we’ve just got to figure out what those programs look like from a shaping perspective.” 

“And then, you know, the Philadelphia site has a great talent base that can do more than just assemble and build vertical lift capabilities, so we’re looking at shaping that out as well,” he says. “I can’t give you the full story right now, because it’s in work, but know from a strategic perspective, thinking about vertical lift and thinking about the site implications around vertical lift is a top priority for us.”

A major blow to the company’s long-term vertical lift future came in December 2022, when the Army selected Bell’s V-280 tiltrotor over the Defiant X Boeing had offered with teammate Sikorsky. The program would have provided decades more work in vertical lift for the Army and potential international orders. The company unsuccessfully protested the decision, and “we’re sort of leaving it alone for now,” Colbert says. “We’ll keep the conversations going, but . . . part of what I’m doing . . . is getting a sense for the demand signal for this part of the portfolio and how we need to shape our investment going forward.” 

This means the end of production for the V-22 and Chinook would be the end of new, full helicopter production at the Philadelphia site unless the company wins another contract. Boeing’s AH-64 Apache program, built in Mesa, Arizona, has a long set of orders—including Poland’s major announcement that it wants to buy 96 of the helicopters, which will keep that line humming. In Philadelphia, Boeing also missionizes the MH-139 Grey Wolf, with production handled by Leonardo nearby.

Thirty-six Ospreys remain to be built before the programs of record for the U.S. services and Japan are complete. These new builds will take about two more years, says Shane Openshaw, Boeing vice president and V-22 program manager. Boeing also is modernizing older V-22s at the line for the Marine Corps’ new Common Configuration—Readiness and Modernization program, which started delivery in 2020.

Although the company says it is looking for more customers and hoping Congress will add more Ospreys to upcoming budgets, the Navy in February announced it was negotiating a sole-source contract with Bell Boeing’s Joint Project Office to shut down the Osprey production line.

The outlook for the Chinook is a bit brighter, with a new order for Germany and a potential order from the U.S. Army to modernize its fleet, although the latter decision is dragging, from Boeing’s perspective.

Berlin announced plans to buy 60 CH-47F Chinook Block IIs, a major order for a production line that will drop its output to just 20 helicopters from about 60 in 2021. While the German order—along with orders from Egypt and South Korea as well as helicopters being built for Spain and MH-47s for U.S. Special Operations Forces—will keep the Philadelphia line running, it will not be healthy. The line would be at its minimum rate, which also would put pressure on the supply chain outside of Boeing, says Heather McBryan, the company’s acting vice president and CH-47 program manager.

To return the Chinook production line to a stronger rate, the Army would need to proceed with its Chinook Block II modernization plan. Army officials have said they hope the German order would help Boeing in the meantime, but the company says more is needed. A decision is expected by the end of the year, McBryan says.

“I just want to relay the importance of U.S. Army domestic Block II as it relates to both here in Philadelphia and the industrial base,” she says.

During a late-May visit for a small group of reporters with accommodations provided by the company, Boeing highlighted parts of the Philadelphia complex outside of helicopter production that could grow in importance. The OEM is investing heavily in its St. Louis-area campus for future air dominance programs, building four new facilities for fighter coatings, assembly and testing. When asked about potential growth areas in Pennsylvania, Kathleen Jolivette, vice president and general manager for vertical lift and Philadelphia site manager, notes the work the location is doing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Boeing Global Services and says additional such projects are more likely than the air dominance efforts in St. Louis.

The number of staff in Philadelphia has been declining since its peak of about 6,200 in 2010. It numbered 4,700 in 2019.  

In addition to production facilities, the Philadelphia campus houses sustainment and training for Boeing Global Services, a large-scale composite fabrication plant, a low-speed wind tunnel and a modeling simulation and analysis center. It also includes the Philadelphia Design Center, one of four scattered across the U.S., which does advanced development, analysis and engineering for various company programs.

In the early 2000s, the location designed the leading edges for Boeing 777s, 767s and 757s and built up a “sizeable engineering team” that largely remained after Boeing moved that supply base. This group was involved heavily in development of the 787, specifically working on structures wiring design analysis and bird-strike activity, says Jon Gabrys, senior manager of the Philadelphia Design Center. The center also has handled structures work and landing analysis simulations for Boeing’s Starliner space capsule.

Today, Gabrys says the design center has two main programs, neither of which are vertical lift. The majority of staff works on design analysis for the 777X, and about 35% are assigned to the U.S. Air Force’s VC-25B, also known as the next Air Force One.

As Boeing considers “shaping out” these other parts of its Philadelphia site, the company is looking ahead to other vertical lift contests in 2030-35, many of which are not U.S.-based. This includes the U.S. Navy’s Future Vertical Lift Maritime Strike to replace its MH-60 fleet and NATO’s Next-Gen Rotorcraft. Boeing Defense UK and partner Airbus have been downselected for the UK’s new medium helicopter program. Boeing does not build a helicopter in the size required for the program, so it has partnered with Airbus and plans to provide sustainment, says Richard Sikora, Boeing’s director of vertical lift strategy.

Beyond traditional helicopters, Boeing is investing heavily in electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles and has now taken full control of the Wisk joint venture. Wisk’s eVTOL aircraft, designed for urban air mobility, use autonomy that could be reverted to use on other systems, including those for militaries, Sikora says. Boeing also recently responded to a request for information from DARPA to compete for its Speed and Runway Independent Technologies (Sprint) program, which aims to fly a demonstrator to validate new technologies and concepts for runway-independent military air mobility operations.

“I would say in the next decade, there’s going to be another round of recapitalization,” Sikora says. “They are in the study phase now, so we’re looking at design concepts, partnering and how we best serve what the requirements are.” 

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that Boeing has taken full control of Wisk. 

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.