Twin-engine Airbus H135 underbid Leonardo’s successful TH-119 for Navy trainer

Pitching the twin-engine H135 as the U.S. Navy’s next training helicopter did not keep Airbus from underbidding winner Leonardo Helicopters’ TH-119 by nearly $100 million, according to a lightly redacted Government Accountability Report published May 12.

Airbus believes the maturity of the H135 program means it will be a low-risk option for the U.S. Navy. Jonny Carroll Photo
Airbus believes the maturity of the H135 program means it will be a low-risk option for the U.S. Navy. Jonny Carroll Photo
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The report details Airbus’s unsuccessful protest of the Navy’s decision to buy the Leonardo helicopter

Until the GAO report was published, it was widely assumed Airbus’s biggest liability was the upfront and operational cost of the heavier, twin-engine H135. Both the TH-119 and incumbent Bell’s 407GXi are single-engine helicopters that earned the required instrument flight rules (IFR) certification during the evaluation process.

The GAO report shows the Airbus bid came in lower than Leonardo’s. The total evaluated price — consisting of the sum cost of 130 aircraft and a 10-year projected operation and support cost — for the Airbus H135 came in at $1.31 billion whereas Leonardo projected the TH-119 would ultimately cost $1.39 billion, according to the document.

In its protest, Airbus primarily argued that the Navy “unreasonably and disparately evaluated the offerors’ technical proposals,” meaning the aircraft themselves and that the Navy’s decision was unreasonable and “based on a flawed technical evaluation,” the GAO says. Through the analysis of the program done since Airbus filed the protest Feb. 3, the GAO found “no basis to sustain the protest.”

“Airbus’s initial and supplemental protests raise multiple allegations,” the GAO report says. “While our decision here does not specifically discuss each and every argument or variation of the arguments, we have considered all of Airbus’s assertions and find no basis to sustain the protest.”

The Navy in January chose Leonardo’s TH-119, based on the commercial AW119, over the Airbus H135 and Bell 407GXi and two other offers to replace the aging TH-57 Sea Rangers on which all Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard rotorcraft pilots are trained.

Leonardo is now working under an initial $176.5 million outlay that covers construction and delivery of the first 32 of 130 aircraft the Navy will call the TH-73A.

Airbus stood out in the competition for offering the twin-engine H135, which is more expensive upfront and more costly to operate. The company made the argument that the H135 was more representative of the advanced fleet aircraft pilots would fly after graduation from flight training.

In both “technical” and “aircraft system” subcategories, Leonardo’s TH-119 scored “outstanding” marks where the H135 was deemed “good”, a lower rating. Both aircraft merited an outstanding rating for management and support, according to the GAO report.

Airbus also was deemed a “moderate risk” in aircraft system and “low risk” in managements and support in technical evaluations of its final proposal. Leonardo was a low risk across the board, the Navy found and GAO upheld.

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In its protest of the award, Airbus argued that the twin-engine H135 was previously certified by the FAA to fly under instrument-flight-rules (IFR), a signature Navy requirement, was more similar than its competitors to advanced fleet aircraft like the H-60 and H-53 helicopters and therefore the best value for the Navy.

The Navy was not swayed by Airbus’ primary argument for the H135 because it required only a current IFR certification and similarity to fleet aircraft was not a criteria for consideration, GAO found.

“The record shows that the solicitation required that the proposed aircraft have a ‘current’ IFR certification, but did not require that such IFR certification be well-established or mature,” the GAO found. “Moreover, the solicitation never stated that the proposed aircraft would be evaluated on its similarity to the current Navy fleet.”

In its evaluation, the Navy assigned the H135 a “significant weakness” for several performance criteria, including for autorotation. On the other hand, it earned eight “risk reducers” under the overall compliance element, one strength for warfighting skills training, and one strength for safety.

Autorotation to the ground is a required skill for graduation from Navy initial rotorcraft pilot training. During the source selection process, analysts questioned whether a twin-engine aircraft, with its added weight, was a wise choice given the requirement to perform repeated autorotations, which put stress on the airframe.

5 thoughts on “Twin-engine Airbus H135 underbid Leonardo’s successful TH-119 for Navy trainer

  1. One more proof the dumping Airbus is using since its inception more than 50 years ago.
    This contract should have gone to Bell Helicopter.
    Americans and Canadians should stop being naive about Airbus.
    France, Germany and Spain, the share holders of Airbus, are picking without any RFP Airbus for all their needs in rotary wings: armes forces, Gendarmerie, Police Nationale, Police des frontières, border patrol,…..)

  2. Dan – interesting follow up to your 14 May article announcing the GAO’s denial of the Airbus AHTS protest. In that article, Airbus asserted that “Because it was clear that certain technical errors had affected the Navy’s assessment of our offering, we felt an obligation… to raise the concerns articulated in our protest.” While you did recognize that the GAO found “no basis to sustain the protest,” a more accurate accounting found that the GAO determined Airbus’s assertions of technical errors as “WITHOUT MERIT.” (emphasis added)

    The GAO took great pains to explain the issues surrounding the Airbus H-135 as the Navy’s rotary-wing trainer. From autorotation Nr issues to cockpit displays, the Navy assessed inadequacies both in reviewing the Airbus proposal and via test flights with Navy Test Pilots. Furthermore, the GAO affirmed the Navy’s thoroughness in executing the government’s evaluation fairly.

    Finally, I think the real story here is that the Navy selected the Best Value solution. Best Value – an often published but rarely struck target as the government tends to award to lowest price/technically acceptable. The offerors had to present their strongest solutions – the Navy assessed several weaknesses in the H-135. One should have NO weaknesses in the solution. Instead of highlighting a lower overall price, perhaps your article should have stressed Airbus H-135’s lack of technical compliance.

    1. Bell used their ODA to issue an IFR cert with limitations. Leonardo certified the 119 via the traditional process without limitations. They were the only OEM who listened to the customer

  3. Typical sales and marketing approach, sell the customer something it’s not asking for.
    In this case I believe the RFP clearly stated an FAA CERTIFIED SINGLE ENGINE helicopter. Not complying with the RFP requirement is strike one. The Navy evaluation delivered the other two strikes.

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