Friday, October 9, 2009

Aging U.S. Rotary Fleet Gets Upgrades

Facing a spending freeze, the U.S. military is concentrating on maintaining its mostly legacy rotary-wing fleet, with upgrades and improvements driven by demands from combatant commanders in Afghanistan.

Most people "would characterize this as a helicopter war," says Army Brig. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for aviation. "We're fighting in an austere environment and we're living in an austere budget environment." With no new clean-sheet helicopter designs on the near horizon, the services are shifting their focus to maintainability, affordability and reliability.

Crosby notes the brisk operating tempo, combined with sand, heat and high altitude, creates tremendous wear and tear on the platforms. "I'm trying to address [these issues] for the long term," he says. Army logistics leadership has asked Aviation and Missile Command (Amcom) to look at the future of helicopter reset programs. This month, the first report on the so-called Deep Maintenance program is due, after which several months of follow-on analysis will help flesh out the program's scope.

"We want to maintain a fleet life of 10 years between upgrades," Crosby suggests as an example. "How do we do that? We're trying to be proactive. We don't want to wake up one day asking, 'What do we do now?'"

The Army flies more helicopters in combat every day than the other services, says Col. Neil Thurgood, project manager for utility helicopters, pointing to the 350 Black Hawks currently deployed. The 1980s-era UH-60A, and newer L and M (Alpha, Lima and Mike) models are all flying. The A and L models have all been modified and upgraded, and the first unit equipped with the new UH60M is in Afghanistan and "doing very well," Thurgood says.

The Army's requirement is for 1,931 UH-60s, but the service has only 1,750, according to Thurgood. "The Army needs more aircraft than they have on hand." To get to the goal of two model types--the L and M--the Army is bringing all its Alpha aircraft into depot for reconfiguration to the Lima, which takes about 290 days. The next step, the Mike upgrade aircraft--featuring fly-by-wire, full-authority digital engine control (Fadec) and the common avionics architecture system (CAAS) cockpit--will be in developmental testing for at least two more years.

The need for increased capabilities is so great, however, that the Army will take pieces of the Mike upgrade aircraft and plug them into the baseline aircraft as developmental testing evolves, Thurgood says. "It's a work in progress," he adds. "As we get close to cutting [new capabilities onto baseline aircraft], we'll refine a date. Those discussions are ongoing."

Boeing has been incorporating lessons from Iraq since Operation Desert Storm, says Jack Dougherty, Boeing's director of H-47 Chinook programs. "We were eating engines like candy," he says. "[Desert Storm] taught us a lesson." As a result, Dougherty says the Chinooks are well-suited to Afghanistan and Iraq. Improvements to counter the corrosive effects of sand include engine barrier filters and the engine air particle separator (EAPS).

When Chinooks return to the U.S. for maintenance, Dougherty says people are often surprised at "how much sand you can get out of the EAPS. That's what it's supposed to do, but some say it's like bringing home half of Afghanistan."

The older D model Chinooks get small modifications based on what Boeing hears from the Army. "It's a continuous process of listening to the field," Dougherty says. "We work with the Army to see if they can afford to make the changes."

For the most part, Army rotary-wing programs are upgrades to existing platforms or involve sustainment, says Crosby. He points to the fielding of new the F model Chinooks, the baseline UH-60M, the OH-58D Kiowa Life Support 2020 program (implemented after the cancellation of the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter that was supposed to replace the aging Kiowas) as well as the future Mike upgrade and Apache Block III.

"What keeps me up at night is that we're flying these aircraft at about 4-5 times normal operational tempo," Crosby says. "The high usage rates will drive [our decisions]."

The Navy is pushing for more and faster feedback from the fleet, a move prompted by an enterprise operating model, according to Rear Adm. Steven Eastburg, program executive officer for air antisubmarine warfare, assault and special mission programs at Naval Air Systems Command (Navair). "When the lessons are fresh in the fleet's mind, that's exactly when we want to capture the message," he says. Ten years ago, Eastburg says, the Navy ushered in a generation of development. "We've been intensely heads-down in terms of developing new and modified platforms."

The last several years have seen a shift into heavy production and most recently a stronger focus on operations support. "We're in the burgeoning stages of a helicopter renaissance of sorts," says Eastburg. "There's lots happening with technology that's 20-40 years old. We're in the process of pushing a lot of new hardware and software out to the field."

The first deployment of the Navy's newest Seahawks--the antisubmarine/antisurface warfare MH-60R and the armed MH-60S--went very well, says Navy Capt. Dean Peters, H-60 program manager. They comprised a 19-aircraft fleet on board the USS John Stennis carrier strike group (see p. 52).

At the top of the list for the Marines is the H-1 upgrade program, which introduced the UH-1Y, or Yankee, and AH-1Z Cobra, or Zulu, to the Marines. Both were first deployed to Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the Yankee will deploy to Afghanistan in November, according to Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy commandant of Marine Corps aviation. During its first deployment, "the [Yankee's] significantly increased power, payload and performance meant that pilots and aircrew were never forced to compromise on fuel, ordnance or passengers in the execution of any utility helicopter mission, which included antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden," Trautman says.

Col. Harry Hewson, the Marine Corps program manager of the H-1 upgrades, says the focus is on maintenance, "24/7, for our legacy platforms in particular." The predecessors to the Zulu and the Yankee--the AH-1W and UH-1N, respectively--are still in the field and require plenty of care to keep pace with operations. Trautman says the UH-1N, while still a "viable aircraft," has "incrementally lost its operational lift capability over 30+ years and is especially challenged under high, hot and heavy conditions like those" in Afghanistan.

The Marines are also making a huge push for improved maintenance and reliability on the V-22 Osprey. Trautman, who has openly discussed the aircraft's low reliability rates, led an Executive Supportability Summit in late September in part to address the issue. The attention is having a positive effect, he says, noting that August saw mission-capability rates improve for all aircraft types in deployed units. "Each platform has different mission-capability goals," he says. The goal for a deployed CH-46E is 85%, he says, while the CH-53E's target is 75%.

Improvements to the CH-53E and D are extensive, as the Marines await the arrival of the new heavy-lift CH-53K. An Engine Reliability Improvement Program (ERIP) is increasing time on wing for the T64 engines' three variants--the -413, the -416 (being qualified on the CH-53D for increased power) and the -419 (to which the CH-53E is upgrading). The change is dramatic, says Navy Capt. Rick Muldoon, CH-53 program manager. In the desert, the CH-53s were getting only 150 hr. on wing, he says. With the ERIP, performance has risen to 650 hr. The target, Muldoon says, is 1,100 hr.

"We're certainly focused on keeping and sustaining the force we have," Muldoon says. "My No. 1 priority is to keep them flying and relevant." It is a sentiment echoed across the services.

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