Despite production delays and cost overruns, the Marine Corps’
effort to upgrade its aging fleet of light-weight AH-1W Super Cobra
attack and UH-1N Huey utility helicopters is beginning to lift off.
The Marines and their prime contractor—Bell Helicopter Textron,
of Fort Worth, Texas—plan to remanufacture 180 Super Cobras
and 100 Hueys, equipping them with common engines and flight dynamics.
The two new versions, known as the AH-1Z and the UH-1Y, will share
84 percent of the same parts, officers in charge of the program
told National Defense. They will have the same drive train, rotor
head, tail boom, avionics, software and controls. This commonality
of parts will help save at least $3.9 billion in maintenance expenses
over next 30 years, according to Bell officials.
It also will reduce the logistical “footprint” of Marine
light-attack helicopter squadrons, which operate both aircraft,
said Maj. Harry Hewson, deputy program manager for operations. Fewer
spare parts will be required, training will be simpler for aircrew
and maintenance personnel, and deployments to places like Afghanistan
will be easier, he said.
Currently, the H-1 upgrade program, as it is known, is in the engineering,
manufacturing and development phase. Low-rate initial production
is scheduled to begin in 2004, with the first delivery to the fleet
in 2006, Hewson said.
Five prototypes—three AH-1Zs and two UH-1Ys—are undergoing
flight tests at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, in Maryland.
The Navy and Marines conduct flight tests at Patuxent River, the
headquarters of the Naval Air Systems Command (NavAir), because
it sits on nearly 14,000 acres of land adjacent to the Chesapeake
Bay, said Marine spokesman John C. Milliman. This makes it ideal
for testing the performance of aircraft in a maritime environment,
The H-1 program, however, is running about two years behind schedule,
and costs have been skyrocketing. According to a recent Defense
Department report, the program’s cost estimates went up 68
percent during the first quarter of fiscal year 2002, from $3.7
billion to $6.2 billion, breaching the Nunn-McCurdy Act.
Under this law, when a program reports a cost increase of 25 percent
or more, the Defense Department is required to certify to Congress
that the program is important to national security and to take steps
to get costs under control.
The department issued the required certificate in May, declaring
that the H-1 program is an “essential” element of the
current and future concept for forward-deployed Marine Air-Ground
Task Forces. All alternatives to the planned upgrades—such
as replacing the Super Cobras with AH-64D Apache Longbows—are
“vastly more expensive,” said Pete Aldridge, defense
undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Also, Aldridge told reporters, Bell has installed a new senior
management team, replacing 12 executives and issuing orders to cut
waste and speed up production.
In another effort to improve efficiency, flight tests are being
conducted by a mixed team of military and corporate pilots, including
three from the Marines and three from Bell.
Traditionally, company pilots do their work first in the early
stages of development, before the aircraft is delivered to the service,
explained the senior Marine test pilot, Lt. Col. Nick J. Hall. Only
then do the military flyers get a chance to try out the new product,
he said. This, he noted, can result in a lost time, with the two
sides conducting redundant tests and making repeated corrections.
Having one team, which includes both service and company pilots,
helps to eliminate redundancies, identify problems and correct them
earlier, Hall said.
As in every test program, Hall explained, his team is trying to
find the “unknown unknowns” that could cause problems
if undetected. Thus far, tests “are proceeding about as well
as could be expected,” he said. “We’re testing
everything in the aircraft, every system, every flight regime.”
During the test flights, each helicopter carries 400 to 500 pounds
of instruments, explained the program’s maintenance officer,
Capt. Jack Abote. The instruments record everything that happens
during the tests, “from engine start to shutdown,” and
they are monitored carefully by engineers on the ground, said Hall.
Test flights are usually routine, with little speed or danger,
Hall said. They are conducted with painstaking care, he said. “You
take off. You practice level flight, then turns. You perform different
angles of bank. Then, you land. And then, you do it again—and
Despite the public perception, most test pilots are not daredevils,
said Milliman. “The job requires a person who is very analytical,
very disciplined—at work, at least.”
The point of test flights, Milliman said, is not to produce the
kinds of thrills that one sees in movies, but to make sure a new
aircraft performs the way it was intended.
One of the prototypes will pay the ultimate price in the testing
program, he noted. Zulu One, the first AH-1Z model, eventually is
scheduled to be transferred to NavAir’s China Lake facility,
in California, to become a live-fire target in survivability tests.
Out with the Old
The H-1 upgrades are designed to rebuild fleets of helicopters that
are decades old, Hewson explained. The upgrades, he said, are “an
evolutionary step for helicopters that were transformational before
transformation was cool.”
The UH-1 Huey has been in service since 1956, Milliman noted. More
than 16,000 have been produced for U.S. military services and those
of about 40 other countries, he said.
The Huey is used for a wide variety of purposes, including troop
transport, combat assault, medical evacuation, airborne command
and control, resupply, maritime special operations, supporting arms
control and coordination, fire support and security for forward
and rear-area forces. During the Vietnam War, Hueys were used to
conduct large-scale helicopter operations, including battalion-size
The current Huey—the UH-1N—is expected to reach its
planned service life of 10,000 hours in 2004. Designed in the 1960s
and fielded in the 1970s, it has never had a service-life extension
or major upgrade. “The N model was pretty good in its time,”
said Abote. “It’s just tired.”
Hueys are armed relatively lightly with machine guns and rockets.
To escort them to the landing zone and protect them as they dropped
off troops, Bell in the mid-1960s developed the Cobra, as an attack
helicopter. It retains the Huey’s engine, transmission and
other parts, but has a thinner fuselage, twin engines and a crew
of two, seated tandem style, one behind the other. Instead of cargo
or troops, the Cobra carries heavier weapons, including a 20 mm
turreted cannon, 5-inch rockets and a wide variety of precision-guided
munitions, such as Hellfire anti-armor, Sidewinder air-to-air and
Sidearm anti-radiation missiles.
The Cobra’s primary missions are close air support, escort
of transport helicopters and ground convoys, armed reconnaissance,
air-to-air attack and anti-shipping operations.
The latest version of the Cobra—the AH-1W Super Cobra—was
introduced in 1986. Deployed during the Gulf War, such helicopters
destroyed 97 Iraqi tanks, 104 armored personnel carriers and vehicles,
16 bunkers and two antiaircraft artillery sites.
Like the Hueys, however, the Super Cobras are beginning to show
their age. In 2000, the Marine Corps’ entire fleet of AH-1Ws
was grounded, after it was discovered that some older rotor blades
might be susceptible to cracking. Each of the helicopters was inspected
to identify and replace suspect blades before being returned to
The H-1 upgrade program thoroughly modernizes both helicopters,
said Abote. “It’s a really extensive upgrade,”
he said. The remanufacturing process transforms the two platforms
into “essentially zero-time, new aircraft,” he explained.
During this process, the two helicopters’ existing two-bladed,
semi-rigid, teetering rotor system will be replaced with an advanced,
four-bladed, hingeless, bearingless rotor system. The rotor head
is made of composites, making it lighter and stronger than its predecessors,
Abote said. It has fewer moving parts, which “reduces downtime
significantly,” he said.
With the rotor system, the helicopters fly more smoothly, with
a “lower acoustical signature,” said Hall. “They
don’t make that distinctive ‘wock, wock, wock’
sound that you usually associate with helicopters. They’re
not as easily identifiable.”
The upgrades also feature an Integrated Avionics Suite, provided
by Northrop Grumman’s Navigation Systems Division, of Northridge,
Calif. The IAS includes an all-glass, fully digitized cockpit, with
multi-function displays in color, mission and weapons computers,
advanced communication and navigation equipment and software to
enable all of these units to function automatically with each other.
“The cockpits have been vastly simplified to make them easier
to maintain and to take the workload off the crew, so they can concentrate
on flying and fighting the enemy,” said Hewson.
In May, Bell announced that it had selected the Top Owl helmet-mounted
display system, built by the British-based Thales Avionics Ltd.,
for use in the two helicopters. Top Owl is already in use in the
Eurocopter Tiger, NH-90 and South African Rooivalk helicopters.
“What that is going to do for the pilot and co-pilot is something
else,” Hewson said. Because it is mounted on the helmet, the
display provides them with all of the flight data that they need
to fly the aircraft without the necessity to keep looking down at
gauges. The system—which weighs 4.5 pounds—“puts
night vision, weapons sighting and weapons control all in one package,
on the pilot’s head,” said Hewson.
Top Owl has an ergonomic design that makes it more comfortable
to wear, Hewson explained. The system is fitted to each crew member,
using a laser scanner. This helps the visor line up exactly with
eyes, which improves weapons accuracy, he said.
The Marine Corps would like to adopt a single helmet system for
use in all of its helicopters, and Top Owl could be that system,
Longbow International—a joint venture of Northrop Grumman
and Lockheed Martin—has designed a new radar system for the
AH-1Z, based on the Longbow millimeter wave radar on the Army’s
AH-64D Apache helicopter. The Cobra Radar System will automatically
search for, detect, classify and prioritize multiple moving and
Lockheed Martin has supplied a Hawkeye target-sight system for
the A-1Z, with a longer range than the current model. The first
Hawkeye was delivered to Bell in 2001. Another was installed in
a Cobra that flew in August.
The Hawkeye provides advanced, third-generation, thermal image
processing, eye-safe laser range finding, target designation and
full fire-control integration. It is designed, officials said, to
operate at extreme ranges, during day or night and under adverse
The upgrades will permit a dramatic increase in the range, speed,
payload and lethality of both helicopters, said Abote. The revamped
Huey will be able to reach nearly twice its current range of 172
nautical miles, and it will be able to carry more than double its
present payload. Today’s Huey has a maximum takeoff weight
of 10,500 pounds.
The AH-1Z will have similar performance improvements, Abote said.
Also, it will carry twice as much ordnance as the current Super
Cobra. Both upgrades will reach speeds in excess of 150 knots at
most mission weights, Abote noted.
The two upgrades are intended to complement the troubled MV-22
Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a joint venture of Bell and the Boeing
Company, Hewson said. Earlier this year, the Osprey resumed flight
tests at Patuxent River, following a series of fatal crashes.
The Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies
like a fixed-wing aircraft, is designed to replace the Marines’
medium-weight Ch-46E Sea Knight and C-53D Sea Stallion helicopters.
It has a greater range, payload and speed than the smaller, lighter
Hueys and Super Cobras, Hewson admitted.
The smaller size of the upgrades, however, has an advantage, Hewson
said. “It allows us to get into tight landing zones—be
it narrow city streets or vacant lots—where the [larger] MV-22
just can’t operate,” he said.