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Keith Flail, Vice President, Advanced Tiltrotor Systems, Bell Helicopter
Keith Flail heads the team of engineering, supply, manufacturing, test and business professionals who made the Bell V-280 Valor fly for the first time last December. His Advanced Tiltrotor Systems portfolio includes both the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) and the V-247 Vigilant Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), and he observed, “Among the engineers, we have every flavor you can imagine for what it takes to design and build these next-generation tiltrotors. We also have a good mix ranging from senior folks with a plethora of V-22 background and experience to entry-level folks.” Flail added, “We have a technical engineering team that works with the program chief engineers to collectively ensure we tailor the mix depending on what phase of the life cycle a given aircraft is in. We also have our 11 invested teammates that are organized similarly to provide their respective critical content to the Valor.”
Team Valor aims to demonstrate science and technology for the Department of Defense (DOD) Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative led by the US Army. As an Army aviator, Flail flew Bell Hueys, Kiowas, and armed Kiowa Warriors. Earlier in his career, as the assistant Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Capability Manager (TCM) for Reconnaissance and Attack, he was also a primary author of the Apache Block III / AH-64E Capability Development Document. Flail noted, “Today’s Army helicopters have been great workhorses for our forces, but their respective first flights were all over 40 years ago. The threat is not standing still. Our overmatch has been eroded in several areas. V-280 helps get some of that eroded overmatch back with the leap in capabilities that it provides. Additionally, FVL ensures the viability of our vertical lift industrial base that is so important to our nation.”
Growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania, Flail found an early interest in military matters other than aviation. He recalled, “I was always drawn to the Army — playing Army as a kid with toy weapons in the nearby woods with neighborhood kids, watching military movies and documentaries, and seeing the Army-Navy football game on TV.”
Flail focused his college searches on schools with Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs in order to earn a scholarship. He said, “I also applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but truly felt that was a long shot. I was completely shocked when I was accepted. I had the opportunity to visit the campus, spent a few days with some freshman/plebe cadets, and was rather star-struck by the experience. After that, I knew I wanted to give it a shot.” Flail’s father, Walter, was a foreman at the big auto parts maker Dana Corporation. “I was also always drawn to math and science. My dad was very talented in customizing and restoring old cars, and my brothers and I spent a lot of our time as kids helping him work on his cars. I think that is what drove my choice to major in mechanical engineering with a concentration in automotive rather than aerospace as a cadet at West Point.
“When I initially entered West Point, I was not predisposed to a certain branch within the Army. That first summer, we had the opportunity to fly in Hueys, in the back, doors open, facing outward, as the helicopter flew low-level around the West Point campus. I was immediately hooked. I knew I wanted to fly and would have the Aviation Branch as my first preference.” Graduation from West Point led to the Aviation Officers Basic Course and flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Out of school, Flail first flew OH-58 Kiowa scouts. Subsequent assignments in California and with front-line units in Korea and Germany made him appreciate the missions and limitations of Army helicopters. “As an Army aviator, my favorite aircraft I ever flew was the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. I thoroughly enjoyed the reconnaissance and attack missions — being able to help develop the situation for the ground maneuver commanders.”
Flail observed, “The OH-58D was very versatile, extremely reliable, and the most advanced digitized platform the Army had in the 1990s. My last assignment in the Kiowa Warrior was as a troop commander with the 4-7 Cavalry Squadron in Korea, 1996 to 1997.” The agile armed scout nevertheless shared the power, speed and range limitations of all helicopters. “With limited legs and payload, it typically required more FARPs [forward arming and refueling points] and more soldiers protecting FARPs. We had more rotation and en route time than on-station time. We needed aircraft in the fight longer, not rotating to FARPs as much as currently required.”
Post-flying assignments taught the aviator acquisition lessons, including working in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology ASA(ALT). “I was fortunate to have worked for many great leaders during my Army career,” noted Flail. “Then-Major General Jeff Sorenson was an exceptional acquisition mentor to me during my time in ASA(ALT), when I was guiding Apache Block III through a successful Defense Acquisition Board. He also took the time to truly mentor the officers on his team.” A tour with the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO STRI) put Flail in charge of multiple developments, including a Live, Virtual, Constructive (LVC) integrated training environment. “Having served in these roles, I was able to see first-hand the interrelationship between requirements, engineering, and production. I learned the blocking and tackling of being a product manager — cost, schedule, performance, risk, execution, trade space, and the dangers of requirements creep — and how the big Army goes about upgrading and acquiring capabilities for our warfighters.”
Leaving the Army in 2010, Flail went to Lockheed Martin to work on Apache sensor modernization. However, an interview at Bell Helicopter in July 2012 provided a new education in vertical lift. “Vince Tobin [now Executive Vice President, Military Business] was very influential in my coming to Bell, as he and I served together on active duty.
Bell has enormous bench strength when it comes to tiltrotor expertise. I interviewed with our now-CEO, Mitch Snyder when he was leading the Military Business, and I moved into the V-280 program manager’s role within a few months of my arrival at Bell.
“I spent a lot of time with our technical subject matter experts, as well as former Marine Corps and AFSOC [US Air Force Special Operations Command] V-22 pilots, to climb the learning curve. We knew we would address tiltrotor concerns, myths and misperceptions about size, affordability, reliability and low-speed agility with the V-280 clean-sheet design based on hundreds of thousands of flight hours on the V-22. We knew we had to create a tiltrotor that was optimized for Army operations — agile, reliable, affordable and sustainable with more than twice the speed and twice the range of what they have today. We also remain laser-focused on the needs of the USMC and SOCOM as DOD works through FVL requirements harmonization.”
The third-generation tiltrotor simultaneously aims to demonstrate improvements in design for enhanced manufacturing, affordability and maintainability in an aircraft optimized for Army air assault but reconfigurable for attack and medevac. In contrast to the small XWorX teams it previously used for new product developments, Bell formed Team Valor to advance tiltrotor technology for the JMR-TD.
According to Flail, “V-280 is a relatively large effort, especially when you consider we are designing, building, flying and proving the next generation of tiltrotor under JMR to reduce risk and inform requirements for FVL. We have used digital design and enhanced program management tools previously on Model 525 and 505 helicopters, so we leverage these capabilities to an even greater degree on V-280.
“One of our great success stories on V-280 has been the ability to bring geographically dispersed V-280 teammates and government teammates into the same virtual design environment, which has increased efficiency and improved communication incredibly. The digital environment gives us one central data source to fundamentally change the way we do configuration management, technical publications, training, and maintenance, all the while reducing downstream life cycle costs enormously.”
Flail observed, “The V-22 is a great aircraft and the most in-demand vertical lift platform on the planet due to its incredible speed and range. V-280 gets the benefit of being a clean-sheet design based on the V-22 experience coupled with today’s latest and greatest technologies and digital design tools. We now have the opportunity to apply even greater focus on design for affordability, maintainability, and manufacturing.”
The Valor exercise has consequently been most impressive because of its people. “It is really hard to get to simple,” said Flail. “What I mean by that is we have incredibly talented folks who worked together based on V-22 experience so that this aircraft is fundamentally cheaper to build and fully optimized for sustainability while providing a revolutionary leap in speed, range, agility, and operational productivity. Examples are our straight wing, broad-goods yoke, blade design, actuation changes, fixed engine, and gearbox designs and layout/configuration. Every technology advance on the V-280 has been applied through the lens of affordability — how do we get cost, weight, and complexity out of the aircraft in every possible area.”
The third-generation tiltrotor also paves the way for the V-247 UAS. According to Flail, “the stretch from V-280 manned to V-247 unmanned is not trivial, but it is certainly very manageable with a great deal of engineering re-use. The tiltrotor promises tremendous payoff for UAS missions, given the need for runway independence, and the speed, range, and payload premiums it brings to multiple mission sets.”
The JMR-TD and objective FVL have profound implications for the vertical lift industry. “I am a proud member of American Helicopter Society International,” noted Flail. “AHS is an exceptional professional organization that is constantly advocating for advancements in vertical lift technologies and FVL.” He added, “Our Valor JMR experience is an ideal example of how to accelerate capability to warfighters. The Army has the opportunity to take credit and hold up JMR as an enormous success story — burning down risk and informing requirements for over five years. An Army-industry team has invested hundreds of millions of dollars. What this means is the Army can take Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction [the TMRR Phase of the DOD acquisition process] credit for JMR and enter deeper in the DOD Acquisition process, therefore accelerating capability to warfighters by several years and saving enormous resources for other competing Army priorities.”