The upcoming buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will put additional pressure on the Army’s already overstretched helicopter fleet, officials said.
For the service’s aviation units, the challenge will be twofold: keep up with a growing demand for helicopters in two major war zones and, simultaneously, maintain and upgrade a fleet that for six years has taken a beating from harsh weather and sand.
Most of the Army’s helicopters were designed decades ago in anticipation of a war with the now defunct Soviet Union. After the Cold War, military planners failed to predict the need to fly long hours in harsh climates and high altitudes.
The demand for helicopters in Afghanistan is going to double, said Frederick Pieper, logistics specialist at the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command. Aircraft maintainers will have to contend not only with the larger workload but also the rough terrain, he noted. “Afghanistan is rural, almost stone age type conditions.”
The buildup may require more helicopters than the Army can spare, said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations, in testimony to Congress in February.
Cargo helicopters, particularly, will be taxed as ground transportation convoys that travel from Pakistan into Afghanistan suffer attacks by the Taliban. Militants have attacked shipping depots in Peshawar, Pakistan, which lies along the road to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Shakirullah Afridi, president of Pakistan’s Khyber Transport Union, announced in December that the organization will no longer transport military goods for U.S. and NATO forces to Afghanistan.
Peri Widener, program executive of Army integrated logistics at The Boeing Co., said the company avoids the Pakistan route, and ships parts — for both the Chinook cargo and the Apache attack helicopters — from the United States through Bahrain to Bagram, Afghanistan. Then Army helicopters fly those components to Kabul.
Boeing’s databases track the availability of parts, and models forecast what is needed and when. The company also stores crucial metals — such as aluminum and titanium — and transmission components in order to prevent shortages.
Afghanistan’s harsh weather will play a role in U.S. forces’ ability to effectively use helicopters.
Blizzards, high winds and sub-zero temperatures boost stress on airframes. And while rotorcraft can fly in such environments, propellers can ice over and endanger flight crews.
Widener said flying in the country’s 14,000-foot Hindu Kush mountain ranges has cracked Chinook airframes.
Despite these challenges, officials remain confident that maintainers can keep the helicopters flying, said Chief Warrant Officer Bobby McQuaid, an Army aviation sustainment officer.
Pieper said, “At this point, the soldiers are familiar with the beast. They’ve been doing it in Iraq.”
The Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopter has tripled its use from peacetime levels, officials said. Flight hours have exceeded 400,000 in Iraq and nearly 39,000 in Afghanistan.
The Chinook, meanwhile, has logged more than 200,000 combat hours in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
To keep the fleet going, the Army in 2003 established a “reset” program to return battle worn aircraft to pre-deployment conditions. The process — a complete disassembly, inspection and overhaul — is undertaken every 12 to 15 months when a unit returns from theater. It involves no modifications or upgrades, which are performed under different programs.
“It takes this special inspection to find the ‘hidden’ damage that has occurred during the combat tour,” Pieper said.
This year the Army will reset 78 Apaches, 189 “Alpha” model Black Hawks, 280 “Lima” model Black Hawks, 85 Chinooks and 125 Kiowas, McQuaid said.
The per-aircraft reset costs are $900,000 for the Apaches, $1.5 million for the Chinooks, $400,000 for the Kiowas, and nearly $1 million for Black Hawks.
Engineers investigate areas susceptible to cracks and corrosion, McQuaid said. Teams open everything from rotor heads — where the rotor connects to the fuselage — to wire bundles, using air hoses to flush out corrosive dirt and grime. They log trends in damage — records are more thorough now than in years past — and that data influences design changes.
Pieper said more than 70 percent of aircraft returning from battle zones require at least one repair that went undetected during theater maintenance. Corroded parts and cracked airframes comprise most fixes.
McQuaid said most helicopters take around three months to reset, although the Chinook, because of its size, requires a few additional weeks.
Both soldiers and civilians work at 14 sites in the United States and Germany, McQuaid said. Contractors include Lear Siegler,L3, DynCorp and DS2 — a Lockheed Martin and Day & Zimmermann Group joint venture.
Pieper said all aircraft must be overhauled within 270 days after 50 percent of a unit returns from theater. Sand is the biggest nuisance, as it penetrates aircraft and grinds up the insides.
McQuaid said, “The sand in Iraq and Afghanistan is not like that on the eastern Maryland shore. It’s a very fine, very abrasive substance.”
In Iraq, mechanics found that corroded parts caused crashes. The sand greatly affected Black Hawk engines — even those with filters – and eroded the Chinook’s floor panels and rotor blades.
Technicians in recent years have sharpened their ability to spot and fix such damage, McQuaid said.
Scheduled maintenance is performed every five weeks, compared to twice a year during peacetime. The Army’s long-term goal is to shift away from scheduled maintenance to “condition-based” upkeep, which would require aircraft to have special sensors that would alert maintainers when something needs to be fixed.
In the case of the aging Kiowa Warrior, the Army is going to “great extremes and great expenditures” to keep it in service for many more years, McQuaid said. (See related story)
The Chinook remanufacturing is conducted at a Boeing facility in Ridley Park, Pa. Because it transports payloads of more than 50,000 pounds, it often suffers cracks in the pylons to which the transmissions are mounted. Instead of replacing the sheet metal that is part of the structure — a costly procedure — the Army remanufactures the aircraft.
Plant workers strip components from damaged craft and send them out for upgrades. They rebuild the airframe and fit it with the refurbished components, turning the craft into an “F-model.”
Future Chinook modifications include sensors that allow maintainers to predict when parts will need replacement. Infrared countermeasures — technology that protects against surface-to-air missiles — will also be added.
Boeing has a partnership with the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas to reduce repair turnaround times for Apache and Chinook transmission components. The goal is to decrease it by 50 percent during the next five years by improving supply chain management, Widener said.
Planned upgrades for the Apache include an enhanced propulsion system and rotor blades made of composite materials — both of which will help the helicopter fly in high altitudes, officials said.
The Black Hawk — the Army’s medium-lift utility, air assault and medical evacuation helicopter — receives a special coating system for the main rotor blades. More than 400 craft have had it applied, according to manufacturer Sikorsky. The substance has helped blades run in rain, sand, gravel and icing conditions. When helicopters are flying in the desert, the rotor blade coatings can help extend the life of the aircraft up to four times what it would have lasted without the protection, said Army officials.
Sikorsky Aircraft is overhauling Black Hawks at the Corpus Christi, Texas Army Depot, and the Army is purchasing new copies of the latest Black Hawk, the UH-60M.
The Army has in recent months fielded the new UH-60M Black Hawk to Afghanistan. It has a General Electric T701D engine, which has enhanced the aircraft’s performance in high altitudes, said officials.
The Army has also added features to the UH-60A Black Hawk, which is used for medical evacuations. These include a new T701D engine and a forward looking infrared night-vision sensor.