Army’s Restored Combat Choppers Fly Like New

By Dan Parsons
Twice the Army has tried and failed, at great expense, to build a new fire-support reconnaissance helicopter. The service still wants to buy one, but that plan may fall victim to a Pentagon budget crunch.

Without a viable replacement for the aging OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, the Army has found that gutting and rebuilding older airframes might do the trick and could cost significantly less than buying a new aircraft and building new support systems.

To that end, the Army’s aviation depot in Corpus Christi, Texas, has teamed with Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter, which built the Kiowa Warrior until halting production in 1999 when the Army quit buying them.

The arrangement to modernize old helicopters — characterized by the depot commander as “fairly cheap” compared with buying new aircraft — could be a harbinger of the new normal in the big-ticket military hardware business. With less to spend, the Army and other military branches may consider revamping existing vehicles as a less costly option for modernizing their fleets.

Bell is under contract to convert 19 obsolete A models  — first used during the Vietnam War — to the newer armed OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.  The company is also in negotiations with the Army to bend new metal and build airframes from scratch to fulfill the program total of 42.

Army aviation is in dire need of replacement aircraft, in both the short and long term, say officials. While they work to keep deployed soldiers flying, Army buyers also are hoping to replace their scout helicopter fleet entirely by 2030. By then it will have been 61 years since the design was first fielded.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for competition. Army buyers are considering new commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft designs from companies that will compete in a fly-off next spring.

The Army’s failure to field a new scout helicopter came as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put more demands on the aging Kiowa airframes.

The fleet has been put to the test over a decade of war, logging nearly 800,000 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Down to 316 Kiowas, it has been a trial to keep the fleet at strength with an average loss of seven per year, for a total of 52 since 2001, said Col. Robert Grigsby, project manager for armed scout helicopters.

Grigsby is tasked with keeping at least 368 helicopters in the fleet, a level considered sustainable.

With no replacement aircraft on the horizon, the Army has resigned itself to using the current scout chopper for at least the next 15 years.

In a pinch, nine trainer Kiowas stationed at Fort Eustis, Va., were rushed into service, but more are needed to bring the fleet up to operational levels, he said. The Army has funding to acquire the 42 additional Kiowas.

The name of the game now is getting wounded Kiowas back into service as quickly as possible and to replace those damaged beyond repair.

“We had to figure out how do we build a wartime replacement aircraft,” Grigsby said during a press conference at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

The Army and Bell have come up with a two-pronged approach to keep the Kiowa flying that may foreshadow a new partnership model for modernizing older weapon systems.

The Army is calling the process its Wartime Replacement Aircraft program, where older A-models are gutted and rebuilt to modern specifications. The first 19 of the requisite 42 will be built in this manner.

Bell has had to dust off its production line, on which currently sit 18 older A-model Kiowa airframes in various stages of upgrade to the D-model planes currently in use.

The Army started arming its Kiowa fleet in the 1980s to protect ships navigating the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war. Army aviators gave such glowing reports of the helicopter’s performance that arming older A-models was ramped up, said Mike Miller, head of Bell Helicopter’s business development programs and one of the armed Kiowa’s first test pilots.

“Because of that success, the Army started to arm and upgrade all their older Kiowas,” Miller said in an interview. “The process we’re talking about now is the same process that all of the current armed Kiowas underwent.”

Several hundred more A-model airframes are available, but Bell and the Army have cherry-picked the best, leaving only corroded cabins that wouldn’t be economical to convert or present safety issues, said Miller.

Army mechanics strip the chopper to its fuselage at Corpus Christi Army Depot then ship the cabin frame to Bell, where it is changed to a newer D model and everything inside except the engine and a few other parts are replaced.

Bell builds a new cabin from the modified frame. A finished cabin consists of everything from the nose to the tail boom, including the wiring, firewalls, rotor support, engine mounts, oil and fuel systems, flight controls, instrument panel, windshield and doors.

Once rebuilt as a D-model — the version Army aviators currently fly — the cabin is shipped back to Corpus Christi, where the Army has taken over a major portion of reconstruction, Col. Christopher Carlile, the depot’s commanding officer, said at the conference.

The depot is now home to a metal press that can shape titanium, one of only four such machines in the Western Hemisphere, Carlile said. Mechanics are able to strip an A-model Kiowa to its skeleton in 75 days, Carlile said.

The benefit of the arrangement is the OH-58 is a “mature aircraft” design Grigsby said. “We have the parts and can now build one up in about two months,” and could eventually turn stockpiled cabins around in as little as five weeks, Grigsby said.

Using an existing supply chain flush with parts for an aircraft that has been in service four decades, the depot orders and installs all the remaining components. In the end, a practically new aircraft becomes “frankly, fairly cheap,” Carlile said.

With its new capability, the Army is also repairing damaged aircraft that don’t need a full rebuild. The first aircraft repaired at Corpus Christi was completed in 2009. The “crash battle damage aircraft program” works in tandem with the wartime replacement project to keep the Kiowa fleet intact. The depot rolled out the first of those aircraft in October 2010.

Bell completed the first refurbished cabin in June, which took about a year and a half to convert and return to service. Each spare cabin that follows should take less time, said Miller.

That third “like new” Kiowa repaired at Corpus Christi was ceremoniously handed over Oct. 27 to the 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade stationed at Ft. Riley, Kan.  

The second conversion cabin is scheduled for delivery to Corpus Christi in January. From March onward, the depot is expected to receive a “like new” cabin every month.

On the heels of the first 19 converted cabins, Bell is in negotiation with the Army to provide “new-metal, zero time” aircraft to fulfill its remaining needs, Miller said. “Zero-time” means that everything on the aircraft is new.

The company has recent experience manufacturing the chopper cabins from scratch. It built 38 brand new Kiowas for Taiwan, according to Miller.

“If you’re going to have these things in the fleet for a long time, new metal is the best,” he said. “When you use an old airframe, you always can run into corrosion and alignment issues.”

Miller said there is little evidence that the Kiowa’s design is showing its age. They get shot and take hard landings, needing repair — Bell has returned 33 crash-battle damaged aircraft to service. But there’s no “item we feel is an Achilles’ heel on this aircraft,” Miller said.

But constant operation, especially in the harsh, arid landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with efforts to modernize the craft, have taken a toll on performance, said Grigsby.

A 40-year-old aircraft is going to suffer minor maintenance woes like loose rivets and cracks, he said. It also inevitably gains weight from sand, oil and water infiltration and as armor and equipment are added, he said.

“We see as much as 70 pounds of deviation from airframe to airframe that we send to Bell, on average 30 pounds,” Grigsby said. “Weight counts. One hundred pounds of [extra] weight in our airplane is 100 pounds of fuel that you’re not carrying or 100 pounds of ammo you’re not carrying.”

By rebuilding the aircraft, or building new cabins, the Corpus Christi depot can give a “lighter aircraft back to the unit from an operational standpoint,” Grigsby said.

Miller said he considers a converted D-model to be zero-time, but acknowledged older aircraft are built of older metal, which can present problems of corrosion, among other minor structural deficiencies associated with hard use.

“As we get to new metal, all those issues associated with wear and tear are out the door,” he said. Once Bell can build cabins from scratch, the Army can buy them as spare parts, he added.

Once the active fleet is back up to strength, D-model cabins will be stockpiled so aircraft mechanics can pull them off the shelf as soon as Kiowas limp in from the battlefield needing replacement, Grigsby said.

Bell also has a contract to upgrade the existing Kiowas from D-models to F-models by 2015. The upgrade includes equipping the aircraft with better sights and color displays. Even the D-model helicopters still have monochrome dash displays, said Miller.

But upgrades have presented problems with at least a portion of the Army’s Kiowa fleet.  The entire fleet at Fort Rucker, Ala., where pilots learn to fly the attack scouts, was grounded Oct. 19 because of an “identified system concern,” according to a statement issued by the base.

The system in question was a newly installed flight control component for which mechanics have “an immediate fix,” the statement read. Fortunately the system upgrade that caused the problem was caught before any pilots were injured or aircraft damaged.

Kiowas at Ft. Rucker were the only ones to have received that particular upgrade to that point. The short-term grounding was “not expected to heavily impact the training of students in the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior course,” the statement read.

The Kiowa was always intended to be a stopgap measure to tide the Army over until its new scout helicopter was fielded. But that has not yet happened. The OH-58 was originally supposed to be a “bridge aircraft” to the Comanche, a problematic program that bogged down amid cost overruns and was canceled. A second attempt to replace the aging fleet with the “armed reconnaissance helicopter” also failed for similar reasons.

Whatever happens with the Kiowa fleet, the Army wants a new chopper in the air by 2030.

Bell envisions the upgraded F-model helicopter will tide the Army over yet again.

Miller was confident a revamped Kiowa, a proven design with an entrenched supply line and thoroughly trained pilot and mechanic corps, would fit the bill. Plans to upgrade the Army’s current D-model fleet to F-models by adding color displays and a new forward-looking infrared system atop the aircraft by 2015, would “get the Army to its 2030 goal,” Miller said.

“You’ve still got the same rugged, dependable Kiowa Warrior,” he said. “It’s definitely the lowest cost, best value for the Army. We want to continue to improve and modify the existing aircraft and make it more effective.”

Meanwhile, Army aviation commanders recently announced they would review commercially available aircraft as a potential stopgap measure to get the service to its 2030 deadline.

Pending approval by the deputy secretary of defense, the Army will ask helicopter manufacturers to demonstrate armed scout rotor-wing aircraft in April at an undetermined location, Maj. Gen. William T. Crosby said at AUSA.

Each aircraft will undergo one-week demonstrations. Requirements from the two failed programs — the Comanche, and the armed reconnaissance helicopter — will be recycled as baselines to judge the helicopters.  

Meeting the requirements is only part of the equation, Crosby stressed. Aviation officials will have to determine what it will cost to add a new helicopter to the fleet. They will then compare that to the cost of refurbishing old aircraft and decide which is less expensive. Bell has a helicopter it thinks will meet that challenge as well.

Called the Block II, it’s a Kiowa with a souped-up Honeywell engine that Bell successfully tested in June flying at 6,000 feet at 95 degrees — specifications the Army is expected to announce prior to the demonstration, Miller said.

“We’re offering this on our own investment,” Miller said. “The Kiowa Warrior has kind of proven itself in a decade of combat. It’s a little aircraft that’s loved by ground forces because it’s always there. I think we’ve got a great strategy going forward.”

The Wartime Replacement Aircraft program is part of a bigger trend to make something new out of old platforms. The Army is in the beginning stages of a Humvee recapitalization program.

Engineers at BAE Systems had the same idea. The company is pitching a solution to the Army’s armored multi-purpose vehicle competition that takes old Bradleys and builds them anew from the frame up. The idea is being sold as a cost-effective recapitalization of existing vehicles to serve future needs. General Dynamics Land Systems is offering its Stryker, again a vehicle already in wide use, for the same program.

Because the Army hasn’t announced to what standards its desired new helicopter should be built, no one yet knows how much cheaper upgrading Kiowas is than buying a new chopper, said Bill Schroeder, a Bell spokesman.

The difference could be billions, says one industry analyst.

“The Army would save billions in procurement cash, plus billions more in setting up a new support and training infrastructure,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for The Teal Group. “Plus, they would avoid the headaches of a new competition.”

According to a report published by The Teal Group in December 2010, converting an existing OH-58D to Kiowa Warrior standards cost about $1.5 million in 1992. The conversion cost dropped to $1.3 million in 1993. Taiwan paid $172 million for 13 OH-58Ds four years later, according to the report.

With the conversion program at full speed and Bell set to begin delivery of new-metal cabins, the chopper is expected to remain in service until at least 2025, according to the Teal Group report.

So far, Army and Bell officials are pleased with the program’s success.

Carlile called the Kiowa replacement program a “perfect story.” Grigsby lauded the arrangement of “the military-industrial complex working hand in hand.”

Entering a decade where the Defense Department will have at least $450 billion less to spend, the reliance on refurbished big-ticket items may be a tack the Army wants to take for other systems as well, said Miller.

“We think this project could have applications in the armor community and elsewhere,” he said. “It’s really a win-win.”   

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing

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