The U.S. Army has delivered the first two T901 flight test engines to Bell’s 360 Invictus and Sikorsky’s Raider X Competitive Prototypes. These engines are a crucial component of the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), a pivotal initiative in the development of FARA aircraft. The delivery of the T901 engines marks a major milestone, setting the stage for aircraft ground runs in the second quarter of FY24 and first flights in the fourth quarter of FY24. The FARA program is poised to revolutionize Army Aviation capabilities, with U.S. Army officials referring to it as the “knife-fighter” of future Army aviation. It is designed to deliver maximum performance in a compact and agile package. The initial request for proposal outlined that FARA candidates must utilize the engine selected under ITEP. The performance goals are ambitious, with few restrictions, except that the maximum dimensions should not exceed 40 feet (12 meters) for both rotor diameter and fuselage width.
The FARA program was initiated by the U.S. Army in 2018 with the aim of developing a successor to the retired Bell OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter as part of the broader Future Vertical Lift program. Several previous attempts to replace the OH-58 were canceled before reaching production, underscoring the significance and complexity of this endeavor. Five manufacturers were awarded design contracts for FARA candidates in April 2019, including AVX Aircraft (in partnership with L3Harris Technologies), Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Karem Aircraft, and Sikorsky Aircraft, which is owned by Lockheed Martin. In March 2020, the designs from Bell and Sikorsky were chosen to advance to Phase 2 of the competition, culminating in a government flight test evaluation scheduled for no later than the fall of 2023.
The CEO of Textron, Bell’s parent company, stated that its FARA candidate design would be based on technology developed for the 525, rather than a further development of the V-280 tiltrotor. In October 2019, Bell announced the 360 Invictus as its FARA candidate design, a winged helicopter with a single rotor and ducted tail rotor. Sikorsky stated that its FARA candidate design would incorporate the compound coaxial rotors and pusher propeller design used on its Sikorsky X2 and S-97 Raider; the S-97 had initially been developed for the Armed Aerial Scout program. In October 2019, Sikorsky unveiled the Sikorsky Raider X, a scaled-up version of the S-97 Raider designed to accommodate the General Electric T901-900 turboshaft engine, which won the ITEP competition in February 2019.
The selection of a design for production is expected by 2028, though it may occur sooner. On March 25, 2020, Bell and Sikorsky were selected by the U.S. Army to proceed with developing flying prototypes, demonstrating their capabilities and commitment to the FARA program. However, it’s important to note that budget documents revealed in May 2022 indicated that flight testing would be delayed until Fiscal Year 2024, which begins in October 2023. Delays in the delivery of the GE T901 engines, developed under ITEP, pushed their availability to November 2022, but they are now ready to be installed in the FARA prototypes, marking a significant step forward in this ambitious and critical program for the future of Army aviation.