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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.
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.
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.