MD’s Tilton vows ‘big expensive year’ of investment bringing new military machinery to market

MD Helicopters plans to invest $100 million to expand and upgrade its military portfolio in 2020 by adding a new twin-engine aircraft to the lineup and certifying new digital avionics for the light single helicopters it already offers.

Lynn Tilton gives her 15th-annual press conference at HAI’s 2020 Heli-Expo in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Skip Robinson)
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Meanwhile, more technically ambitious plans for new configurations aired in past years will take at least a temporary back seat, Chief Executive Lynn Tilton said Jan 28.

In her 15th typically theatrical, wide-ranging address to Heli-Expo since she bought the company in 2004, Tilton said the coming year would be “a big year and big expensive year” for the company.

New products will include a Block II variant of the 530G military aircraft, which includes Elbit Systems helmet display systems and a new Elbit mission management system. A G-model with the modifications will be “flying and ready to roll” in 2020, Tilton said. The U.S. Army is purchasing the same helmet system for its UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook pilots.

Universal Avionics (UA) and MD announced the same day a strategic partnership to integrate the advanced InSight Display System all-digital display avionics system in the 900/902 Explorer NOTAR-equipped light twin. The flight deck retrofit will replace steam gauge displays currently installed in the twin-engine helicopters with two portrait format high-resolution LCD displays with LED backlighting.

“I think that cockpit is by far the most advanced in the market,” Tilton said. “It takes the best of fixed-wing and the software is now for helicopters. It is not only single-pilot IFR, it also has a helmet display, as well as what we’re all looking for, which is the ability to see the terrain even when they will not see it, the helicopter will.”

That aircraft should be certified and ready for sale by the end of 2021, Tilton said. MD is also continuing its effort to certify the 969 combat attack aircraft, which Tilton said has the “combat power of a Black Hawk.” The NOTAR-equipped 969 is the basis for MD’s bid to replace the U.S. Army’s OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, but the beefed-up version did not pass Army muster when competitors for that program were chosen. In its current configuration, the aircraft is being marketed as a light, relatively affordable fast attack aircraft to overseas customers.

“We’re very excited about the 902 and the 969 and the 530G,” Tilton said. “A lot of this year is really about continuing technology and innovation in terms of glass cockpit you see in the MD 530F as well as the 530G that also will be certified in the 520 and the 500.”

The same glass cockpit will be offered as a block upgrade to the MD600, so by the end of 2020, the company’s entire product line will be offered with digital glass cockpits, Tilton said.

Also on offer is the Genesys Aerosystems’ Advanced IDU-680 Integrated Cockpit, which gained FAA certification in 2019. That all-digital cockpit is available on the 530F and G models.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the ability to be both a defense contractor as well as a commercial company,” Tilton said. “That has only gotten more and more advanced over the last few years as we really became part of the industrial base and a full defense contractor.”

MD’s manufacturing facility is both FAA and GRC certified, which allows it to build military aircraft on one line and commercial aircraft on a parallel line and to customize them with mission-specific equipment on a third military line. Tilton is dead set on continuing to produce the MD airframe and as many parts as possible in house — the company currently makes about 2,000 — to speed output and streamline the company’s supply chain.

“We are completely vertically integrated on the single-engine line,” she said. “I believe in vertical integration. It’s what I said 15 years ago and everyone laughed at me. But supply chain is complex and any one person can keep you from delivering an aircraft. And so the more you can control, the more you can do in-house, the more you are in charge of your own destiny.”

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That should help when the military contracts foreseen for the 902 and 969 start rolling in and production must ramp up, she said.

“That’s why we decided to bring the 902 airframe into production at home so that we can do the same with the twin, especially when we start really putting them out for the military and have to build in big numbers.”

With those priorities in front of MD, programs like the long-body, enhanced performance MD 6XX and NOTAR-sporting winged Swift that the company pitched as a next-generation attack helicopter, have taken a back seat.

MD is currently suing the U.S. Army in court over not being admitted to the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program. Tilton said she has not given up on the Swift, based on the 969 but with much larger and more powerful NOTAR, wings and other military-specific modifications that would allow speed up to 200 knots.

The 6XX, a similarly ambitious design with enhanced rotor and structural designs that improved performance and lowered noise signature and a redesigned tail boom with four-bladed main rotor, is in a similar holding pattern, Tilton said.

“It has actually just fallen behind,” Tilton said of the 6XX. “What we have decided to do is get the 530G, which is what the military seems to want, as well as getting the 969 together. We’re a small company and we’ve just had to set priorities. We’re putting about $100 million into research and development this year. That’s not on the list.”

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