Podcast: Recapping B-21 Rollout, V-280 Contract Win

Two of the biggest events of the year for military aviation happened on sequential business days between Dec. 2-5. Our editors discussed how both events went down and what they mean for the future of military aviation.

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Rush transcript

Steve Trimble:

Welcome to the Check 6 Podcast.

We've had a very interesting couple of days in the military aviation beat, especially in the United States. Two of the biggest news announcements of the year have taken place in the last two business days, December 2nd and December 5th, with a rollout of the B-21 in Palmdale, California on Friday, and of course, the contract award to Bell and the V-280 for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft on Monday, December 5th.

I'm Steve Trimble, I'm the Defense Editor for Aviation Week, and we're going to discuss these two huge news events with a panel of our editors, including Brian Everstine, our Pentagon Editor, who was directly involved in covering both of those events, and our Technology Editor, I think our Senior Technology Editor, Graham Warwick (Executive Editor, Technology).

So starting with Brian and the B-21 rollout.

So you were there, you were one of the 600 lucky folks who got the golden ticket to attend the spectacular rollout ceremony with a flyover of the B-2, B-52 and B-1, and then, of course, the rollout of the star of the show itself.

But as somebody who was there on the ground, or on the photography riser, as you were, what were some of the things that you thought stuck out from attending that event in person?

Brian Everstine:

Well, I think the first thing that stuck out to me is maybe not the most exciting, but it was just the plenty amount of red tape and regulations and security and just multi-level issues we had to get through to even be on site.

They had very, very strict camera regulations, which were very confusing and kind of would go against each other depending on who you were talking to. So basically, it's kind of scene setting.

To meet these requirements, I flew out to LA, picked up a camera at a camera rental shop in Hollywood, which kind of is a different world for me as a military reporter, and made the long trek up to Palmdale.

And for reporters, we pulled in, had to go through metal detectors, get all of our bags stamped for what we could take where; we couldn't take our cameras into certain places, couldn't take our recorders into others. We had to lock them in basically far away [inaudible 00:02:19] bags.

And we had a series of briefings before we led up to the big exciting rollout, including with Northrop CEO, Kathy Warden, Air Force Chief of Staff, General Brown, the Air Force Acquisition Boss, Andrew Hunter.

And this was really interesting; inside the hangar, the B-21 itself was still under the shroud, but we were able to sit kind of on the angle to it. And there's a video up on DVIDS if you want to look it up to see it.

But it was really interesting, because we were on the side and I thought that was one of the most interesting angles of the aircraft, because there, I really got the idea that it would be quite a bit different than the B-2.

You could tell, even though it was under the shroud, the inlets were a lot smaller; the wings, just from that angle, seemed much, much longer than the B-2, which we had just seen before the ceremony.

They had the B-2 sitting outside and we were able to talk to their program managers, some Air Force test pilots. And the F-35 was there, the E-2 Hawkeye, the Triton; just a few different other aircraft to kind of scene set what Northrop wanted to show off.

And then finally, the time came as dusk approached to go and get on our press riser to get ready for the ceremony. And there, we had a very ornery security man basically measuring everyone's cameras to see that they were exactly six feet, which was not what we were told beforehand, we were told our cameras could not be any higher than six feet, but that's neither here nor there.

But I almost got kicked off and kicked out of the ceremony because my tripod wasn't tall enough. So I was panicking, putting notebooks and lens caps under the legs of my tripod to get it exactly tall enough. And I was able to just right before ...

They had a Northrop employee come out and sing the national anthem, and that's when we did the flyovers. It was the B-52, then a B-1, and then a B-2.

If you watched the ceremony, the timing was a little off. I think the time on target for the B-2 was about 15 seconds or so late.

And then the ceremony officially kicked off, and we had Kathy Warden speak, then we had the Vice Chairman [inaudible 00:04:14] Chief of Staff, Admiral Grady, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Which I thought was very interesting. You have the Secretary, who's a former Army general, you have the vice chairman, who's a navy admiral, speaking at the ceremony. So there was no members of the US Air Force talking at the actual ceremony.

And apparently, what the Air Force said was they weren't asked to. Northrop wanted some DOD officials. And so we ended up with an admiral and a general rolling out an Air Force bomber.

And then finally the time came, they opened the doors, they pulled the shroud off, and then [inaudible 00:04:48] see, with all the smoke and the blue lighting, the B-21 was finally unveiled.

And I took about 400 pictures that everyone's been combing over to get an idea of what this thing actually looked like and what it can do.

You guys want to share some of your initial insights from what you saw?

Steve Trimble:

First of all, I mean, I do hope we'll see an Air Force general unveil the Columbia submarine in a few years, just to get them back for that.

And then I also can't help but wonder or suspect that maybe our predecessors at Aviation Week, especially Mike Dornheim, Bill Scott and Bruce Smith, caused your security problems by pulling their own little stunt-

Brian Everstine:

Oh, absolutely.

Steve Trimble:

... By flying the Cessna overhead.

But they did great work and we're very proud of what they were able to accomplish, but I do think it probably created a little bit of hassle for you at this one.

Brian Everstine:

This time they closed the air space.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah, they did. This time ... Yeah, they forgot to put out the NOTAM, but this time they definitely put out a NOTAM to make sure that nobody was going to be flying over that trailing edge from a thousand feet with a telephoto lens.

Brian Everstine:

And they didn't even pull it totally out too. Even if there was anybody above, you wouldn't be able to see the trailing edge.

Steve Trimble:

Well, and we can talk about this in a bit, but I mean, it's at a public airport and they're going to have to start testing it on the ground pretty soon.

Brian Everstine:

When I got up to Palmdale, I had a couple hours to kill, and Palmdale is very well known for wonderful restaurants and exciting things to do, so I got some fast food and I just did some laps driving around Plant 42, stopped by some of the main spotter spots. There's that sod company that has a straight shot into Northrop. And you couldn't see anything. The way they had it all set up was blocked off by all of the hangers and construction; unlike the B-2 rollout, which was obviously pretty out in the open.

Steve Trimble:

I agree with all that.

So Graham, you've been watching new aircraft rollout for 40, 50 years ... Maybe just 40 years. Sorry about that. Don't want to age you prematurely.

But what stuck out to you? We got to talk about those inlets, we got to talk about the strange fuselage bulge at the bottom.

What do you think is going on?

Graham Warwick:

So really, at the very first sight of the aircraft coming out, the guys standing by the front of the aircraft, my initial reaction was, "This is a two engine airplane." This is a smaller airplane. It just looks smaller. It has the single set of twin wheels on each side versus the four on the B-2.

And then, of course, you look at the cockpit area and then you look at the inlets and you think, "This is a smaller airplane. This is a twin engine airplane."

We have to talk about ... The real fundamental difference is the cockpit is very different. It always struck me as odd that the B-2, it's a stealthy airplane, but it had a big open cockpit. You could see right into that cockpit. Visually you could see right into that cockpit.

This airplane, you look at that cockpit, for a start off, you can't see, it's totally opaque. The front screens, the front wind screens, are totally opaque, and they are clearly shaped to give the pilots only the visibility that they absolutely need to do their job.

And then when you see it side on, as Brian says, the side on shot even covered with a tarpaulin is very informative.

The B-2 has this kind of caboose, you know, the cabin area, it goes quite far back, kind of like an Airstream kind of look. That's gone. This thing has a hump at the cockpit and it just disappears downwards.

And then you go from that cockpit area to the inlets, and the inlets are utterly different. Gone is that hump of the inlet. You're looking at it head on, you'll see a very narrow slot.

Now we are not seeing all the inlet. It is deeply embedded and there's a bigger area there that we can't see behind the leading edge.

But what it's done is it's completely removed any real surface features from the upper side of the aircraft. If you go from wingtip to wingtip, there's really almost kind of like a smooth curve up over the cockpit and down again. There's a little bit of a [inaudible 00:08:43] around the inlet. That is so different to the B-2, which has got these definable bumps for the engines themselves.

So you see that the volume that's above the wing has dramatically reduced on the B-21. But what you do see is the volume under the wing has dramatically increased. We've now got a really deep, really wide, pretty much featureless lower fuselage that we can see.

That's a lot of volume in there. Now if we've got two engines, look, that's great, but there's a lot of volume now enclosed below the wing versus above the wing.

And so you kind of think, "What's going on there?" I mean, is that about dealing with the upper hemisphere stealth versus the lower hemisphere stealth?

B-2 is very featureless looked at from underneath. B-21, looked at from above, is pretty featureless.

And then you can't really see it in any of the photographs except for the one side view and a really close up shot that that very noticeable beak on the B-2 seems to have kind of moderated to more of like a shelf or something, that the nose does not have that dramatic undercut surface. There's a little bit more [inaudible 00:09:59] on the wing going outboard than on the B-21.

We're pretty sure that those outer wing panels are much longer because there's not the double-W trailing edge anymore, there's just a single W. And those outer wing panels are probably much more slender when looked at from above. So you get better aerodynamic performance. But you can see a little bit of the wing shape has changed.

But really, it's that shift of volume from above the wing to below the wing that I think is the defining ... Other than size, that's really the defining difference, I think, for me on the B-21.

Steve Trimble:

You know, it's funny, some of the initial backlash I saw on social media and other places was just everybody's saying it looks just like the B-2 and this is the B2.1. Whereas when I looked at it, I thought, "Wow, this looks so much different than I expected it to look from the B-2."

I mean, certainly, we knew the trailing edge was going to be a lot different, the inlets were going to be a lot different, but you see so many other different features on this.

They're both flying wings.

Graham Warwick:

The truth is that we've reduced the aircraft to its essential element here. It's a wing, right? How much can you play around with a wing?

So really, when Northrop did the B-2 ... And then you've got to remember, it's been through all these other iterations. It's been through X-47 and various other iterations in design and in flight of the basic flying wing; they have honed down the design.

And really, the ability to riff on this design is limited, because it's a wing. It's a wing with very much ... What they've really done is almost removed any external feature from that wing. They've made it even more featureless than you could think.

But really you're absolutely right. It's a flying wing. What else can you do with a flying wing?

Brian Everstine:

So we were all shuffled out just immediately. They were just like, "Grab your gear, run out."

So we left to stage right, and it was basically at the same angle that we had in the briefing beforehand, but it was actually un-shrouded. So I was able to get a look of it from the side.

And from the side, it doesn't look like a B-2 to me at all. With the proportions of it and the color, it just really stood out to me, like maybe a bigger RQ-180. There's a lot of design from that aircraft that I think went into this, just from my perspective.

Steve Trimble:

Yes. And that's a whole other conversation, the RQ-180.

And normally, we would just talk about B-21 on a week like this, but we had another huge military aviation event come up yesterday that we have to talk about. We're recording this on December 6th, Tuesday. And that, of course, was the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft contract award by the US Army to Bell for the V-280 Valor, which means that they did not select, the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky/Boeing defiant coaxial rotor pusher prop helicopter for that contract.

Brian was our reporter also on the scene, although in his case, the scene was on a cell phone calling into a media call in with Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition from the, I think it was the economy parking lot at Dulles Airport.

So this did not go down the way I expected it to go down. I thought it was going to be a much more bigger event, probably in the DOD briefing room with Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff making the big announcement, congressional notifications beforehand, but it literally just dropped out of the blue and with very little fanfare.

But Brian, just walk us through exactly what happened and how they announced it, because I think it's really interesting.

Brian Everstine:


So in my conversations with the Army, I had asked General McConville a little over a month ago, "When is this finally going to drop? We've been waiting for it, and hear it's going to be October, hear it's going to be November." And McConville said, "Oh, we're going to have a Merry Christmas."

I talked to the Secretary of the Army's public affairs office about a week ago, and they brought up the Christmas timeline again. So I think all of our expectation would be later on this month.

So just to show how unexpected it was, yesterday, at about 9:00 AM Pacific Time, I was on my rental car shuttle rushing to the LAX airport to get out there after the Reagan Forum ... And actually, at the Reagan Forum, I talked to Secretary Wormuth about this and she did not hint to any sort of timeline.

But I got this kind of cryptic email saying, "Hey, we have a select amount of reporters who we can have join this round table with Assistant Secretary Bush and a couple others on FVL." And they wouldn't say what it was. So RSVP'd.

Finally, about an hour before landing at Dulles, I get the call in number, I rush to my car in the green lot and call in. And it wasn't even until probably I was walking up the shuttle that I got the press release saying that they had selected Bell.

So I finally called in and they had three Army officials kind of going around talking to each other saying, "Congratulations on such hard work. It's been a great program. We've all put in so much effort." And they didn't even say who won. And the first opening statements of this briefing, the first questioner was like, "Okay, so who won?" And that was finally when they said it was Bell.

And throughout the ... It's only about 15 minutes or so of questions; they would not really give any inclination of why they picked Bell; just said that it was the most value for what they wanted and said that they had worked in an expectation of a possible protest.

It'll obviously be up to Sikorsky and Boeing if they go that route, but it seems like there was quite an expectation for it and there's a relatively short window for we'll see that playing out.

So Steve, yeah, what was your expectation of [inaudible 00:15:38]?

Steve Trimble:

Well, like I said, I expected a much bigger event.

I mean, look, this is probably the biggest military rotorcraft contract, might be even the biggest civilian rotorcraft contract really, since the late 1970s when the Blackhawk contract was awarded to Sikorsky.

This is the aircraft that is supposed to replace the Army's Blackhawk fleet and is in the running to replace Marine Corps' Blackhawk fleet. The Navy might have some trouble fitting that tiltrotor configuration, so they might look for something else.

But anybody that's operating a Blackhawk, which is a whole lot of people, are going to be looking to this aircraft. And so it's a really big deal.

So I'm curious for Graham, what do you think about this decision? What do you think about the decision to go with the tiltrotor versus the compound coaxial pusher prop configuration from Sikorski-Boeing?

Graham Warwick:

Yeah. I really, really wasn't ready to call this. I found it really hard to believe that the Army, after decades of only operating helicopters, really would take the decision to go to a tiltrotor.

But I think, in the end ... I mean, you've got to look at some things here.

There is no doubt that Bell absolutely aced the demonstration program. I mean, they literally almost did a perfect job demonstrating this aircraft. I mean, it was flawless execution on demonstration.

They knew what the challenges for a tiltrotor were: cost; the fact it's not a helicopter, so it's low speed agility, it's hover performance, which it still has to worry about if it's an army vehicle. Not a marine vehicle, but an army vehicle. They have to worry about that sort of thing.

So they really targeted taking the cost out of the tiltrotor and showing that this thing could be agile at low speed and low altitude. And they did it.

Meanwhile, you look at Sikorsky-Boeing, and I mean, they've been working on this configuration, what they call the X, I forget what they call it now, X technology, for some time now, but they struggled to get there [inaudible 00:17:39]. Yeah, they had lots of trouble with the rotor blades ...

This is just a scale up of a technology that they had previously flown at a small scale, and they really struggled getting the rotor blades, they struggled with the gear boxes, they struggled ... They got it flying, it worked very well ... They were well behind Bell in execution.

But really, if you go all the way back to, what was the Army trying to do with this? They were coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq saying, "We need to have something that can go a long way fast."

I genuinely didn't believe that they would really go a tiltrotor route, I thought they would stay helicopter, but they have actually stuck true to what their original target was: go far, go fast. There's no doubt the tiltrotor does that better than anything.

I think also, just finally, I think it's a statement about maturity. Because of the V-22, the tiltrotor is a well understood design; X-2, it doesn't matter how clever it is, it is still a technology that is being matured. And I think that tripped Boeing and Sikorsky up.

The question now becomes, are they mature enough to win the FARA, the contract that comes along? It's not worth anything [inaudible 00:18:50] as much as FLRAA, but it's still going to be crucial to that configuration. Can that coaxial rigid rotor compound actually make it into service? And FLRAA now decides whether that's going to happen or not.

Steve Trimble:

And perhaps whatever comes out of the NATO rotorcraft replacement program.

And my own impression of the program and the challenge just facing it ... I mean, they went with, by far, the more mature configuration anyway you measure it. V-280 was just at a much further along level of maturity, as Graham was saying.

But now, I mean, the real challenge is going to be to stick to that schedule.

You have to remember, until 2019, the plan was to field FLRAA in 2034. They backed that up to 2030 in 2019. They broke the acquisition into this sort of hybrid model where the award that came out yesterday was for a virtual prototype through other transaction authority and the middle tier acquisition authority framework thing. And then that's supposed to lead directly into an abbreviated EMD phase, and then flight testing and get it fielded.

But then on top of that, sort of in parallel, there's this mission systems program that is independent. I mean, it's related, but it's going on its own track, and it's supposed to be a common mission systems suite for FARA and FLRAA.

And the Army's performance requirements and their weight requirements and cost requirements for those mission systems are very challenging. And the business case and the business model for industry is going to be also a big challenge with the Army demanding much more of the IP.

So I think we've yet to see that really play out and see how that's actually going to work out. I think it's probably the biggest challenges facing the program as I've covered these things, you know, trying to get all of those things right. But yeah.

Brian, do you have any other thoughts about that part of the award or anything else in the program?

Brian Everstine:

I think you guys covered it pretty good. I mean, I think we could go on for hours and hours with just all the news that has happened over the past few days.

Steve Trimble:

Well, the other thing about this is the context of the long range assault mission.

This is something that we saw come up in Ukraine with Russia in their initial invasion, bringing us an assault force on Mi-8's into Hostomel and attempting to take that airfield.

A lot of people would wonder about why you would try to take an airfield with an airborne assault force, because the whole point of an airborne assault force is to not need an airfield. It's almost impossible for light infantry like that to defend something that's flat and has no features and no defensible spaces and is huge.

But that's the idea, is that the Army wants this aircraft to burst into the enemy's rear areas, scatter these small teams in various places and cause all sorts of disruptions.

And so that's why they need this speed, they need this range, especially when they look at operations in the West Pacific.

And they need really advanced technologies for those mission systems, because they're going to have to fly in really low. They can't stay up at 10,000 feet like they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. There's too many MANPADS, there's too many surfaced air missile defenses.

So yeah, it's a very important program for the Army and how they look at their overall strategy.

But go ahead, Graham.

Graham Warwick:

Yeah, no, no, no. I'm just going to riff on what you're saying there.

Everything you say is true, but I think that means we've not seen the end of the Blackhawk. They've already kind of said that the [inaudible 00:22:25] is an expensive platform. [inaudible 00:22:29] that they have Blackhawks. They've always kind of said that Blackhawks can have a long ...

So even if it's protested, if this gets stood up and Bell holds onto this, we're going to see a switch certainly from the Sikorski side to saying, "What is the life left in the Blackhawk cockpit? What can we do with the Blackhawk? We've got a new engine coming, we've autonomy coming."

I think we're going to see this big shift to those Blackhawks that do remain. And they're still building them, as we speak; are going to be very important, going well into the lifetime of FLRAA. These two things are going to coexist.

And a lot of the missions that we think of as helicopter missions probably will stay with the BlackHawk, and the missions that you described, this new way of the Army knocking down the door type of mission, is going to go to FLRAA.

Steve Trimble:

Well, I think we covered a lot of ground here. There's still a lot to talk about this and we're going to be covering it as it moves forward over the next several years. It's going to be very interesting on both these programs.

But I think that's all the time we got for today. Don't miss the next episode. Subscribe to our Check 6 Podcast in your app of choice.

One last request; if you're listening to this in Apple podcast and want to support it, please give us a star rating or review.

Bye for now, and thanks a lot for Graham and Brian for sharing their thoughts on this.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

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.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.


1 Comment
Will FLRAA fit on a Burke? On a Type 26?