Marines’ Beloved Chopper Replacement at Risk
For Cpl. Lauren von Tersch and Lance Cpl. Aaron Oldham, the afternoon’s training flight will be their first ride in the latest version of the Marine Corps’s standby utility helicopter, the UH-1Y, or Yankee, newly landed at the Jacksonville, N.C., installation.
“It’s like going from a Harley to a crotch rocket,” said von Tersch, using the slang term for a racing motorcycle.
Whichever metaphor they use to describe the new aircraft, emphasis is placed on power.
Oldham instead thought of muscle cars as a suitable stand-in for the evolution of the “Huey” line built by Bell Helicopter.
“On the old one you’re always fussing with the engine and tweaking all the technical stuff but it can still get out there and kick some ass,” Oldham said.
It’s obvious the dual-rotor UH-1N’s beefed-up, more capable replacement has gained the admiration of its newest crewmembers. But they still speak in hushed tones about the Yankee’s predecessor, which has flown in every conflict since first ferrying Marines in the 1960s.
The Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167 here has had to watch its West Coast counterparts fly them in combat for more than a year. It is the first East Coast unit to receive Yankees and now has four on the flight line. The newest arrived Nov. 17.
How many they will ultimately receive is uncertain, as helicopter modernization competes for scant funding with other Marine Corps procurement programs.
In all, the Marine Corps wants to buy about 160 UH-1Ys, though the first few were rebuilt November models, according to a July 2011 report by the Teal Group, a Northern Virginia-based industry research firm. It also has plans to buy 123 new AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters, as part of a total $12 billion overhaul of the Marine Corps helicopter fleet. Yankees run about $21 million apiece.
The F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and V-22 Osprey are high on the Marine Corps’ wish list despite consistent cost overruns and developmental problems. They could trump plans to replace helicopters, said Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with the Teal Group.
“The UH-1Y program is a very solid upgrade, but the Marine Corps has an incredibly ambitious aviation upgrade plan,” Aboulafia said. “The V-22 and F-35 are tip-of-the-spear platforms that take priority over things like the UH-1 program.”
The Marine Corps decided to stop looking for a successor to the UH-1N in 1995, choosing instead to rebuild or replace the fleet with newer models. It has requested $386.5 million for procurement of 15 Yankees in fiscal year 2012, according to the Teal Group report.
The CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopter is also slated for replacement.
“Marine Corps aviation funding needs to grow substantially to pay for all these programs at the very time when defense budgets across the board are being cut,” Aboulafia said.
The UH-1Y program’s “best hope is that something very bad happens to the F-35 or V-22 budget-wise,” he said.
Don’t tell that to the Marines.
Oldham and von Tersch spoke to National Defense just hours before they would first get to practice takeoff and landing maneuvers in the Y-model, one in a series of three during a 45-day transition period for Huey crew chiefs.
Just outside, mechanics rifled through a Yankee parked next to a Super Cobra attack helicopter, learning the intricacies of its state-of-the-art systems and its compatibility with its sister gunship.
The crew chiefs’ excitement showed as they described the Yankee’s power and maneuverability. Von Tersch anticipated the greater “can-do” it brings to the battlefield.
Crew chiefs are self-described “backseat drivers,” who don’t have to relearn the mechanics of flying a more-powerful utility helicopter. That task, enviable given all the new capabilities of a Yankee model, falls to pilots like Maj. Matt Humphrey.
Humphrey has 2,300 hours logged in the November in missions the world over, but he is smitten with its replacement.
After three deployments with the older, two-bladed helicopter, Humphrey has recently completed his conversion training to the UH-1Y and is helping North Carolina-based pilots do the same.
“This aircraft really can do all trades and it can be a master of many of them,” Humphrey said. “The Yankee is far and away, leaps and bounds better than the November.”
Presently, the N-model Huey and the Cobra are poorly matched. Upgrades to the Yankee bring the two helicopters firmly in line with each other.
Internally, a Y-model Huey is almost identical to its sister gunships. The new aircraft have the same tail boom as a Cobra and are 85 percent compatible — meaning nearly all parts are interchangeable.
“You can actually take the whole back end of a Huey and put it on the back of a Cobra or vice versa,” Oldham said. “It’s been done.”
Huey crews are especially proud that the new aircraft is a match at speed for the Super Cobra, which is designed specifically for speedy attack around a swiveling 20mm Gatling gun.
Where once the Cobras had to fly slower so Hueys could keep up, it’s now the gunships that “call for knots.” “It means they have to ask us to slow down now,” von Tersch said.
Speed gives Yankee crews more than bragging rights. It gives pilots more maneuverability and provides greater safety in combat.
“The faster you go, the more difficult it is to shoot you down,” said Oldham.
That power is the product of two upgrades. The most immediately recognizable is the four-bladed rotor. It not only improves power, but also stabilizes the aircraft during flight, “making it a lot better ride for the guys in the back,” Humphrey said.
A four-rotor configuration reduces vibration. That extends the life of many of the electrical and mechanical systems onboard.
Two of the rotors can be folded inward, so Marines can take them aboard a ship. It takes about 10 minutes to fold them out and fly, Humphrey said.
The rotors are powered by twin T-700 turboshaft engines built by General Electric. The same engine powers the Cobra, as well as the UH-60 Blackhawk, among other aircraft. That gives the Yankee a maximum takeoff weight of 18,500 pounds, almost double the 10,500-pound maximum takeoff weight of the N-model.
Over the years, new radios, door guns and safety upgrades have weighed the November down, said Humphrey. The Yankee doesn’t have that problem.
It also has about 50 percent greater range than its predecessor, a more robust airframe and composite rotors, all of which are welcome improvements, said the Marines training on them.
The Yankee can carry up to 10 troops, each with a shock-absorbing seat, or six litters during medevac missions. The November and older versions of the Huey could carry between six and eight passengers.
“It has really opened up the way ground forces can use their assets in theater,” Humphrey said. “It forces us into a role of more assault support.”
For pilots, the learning curve to flying the Yankee is not all that steep, Humphrey said. “The real difference is mission-set training.” They spend about two months learning to pilot the aircraft by completing a conversion course of 30 hours of flight time during 15 exercises.
Pilots have to become comfortable with the capabilities of the newer aircraft, such as performing in the negative-G realm. They also have to learn that the new helicopter can access places the November models couldn’t go.
Though he will miss the old bird, Humphrey can’t go back. Training to fly the Yankee precludes a pilot’s certification on its predecessors, the primary reason for which is safety. For one, the new choppers are computerized. The N-models remain firmly in the analog age with old-fashioned gauges and readouts that were the mainstay in Vietnam.
N-models sport twin engines and are loaded with more technical gear than the original Hueys, but not a whole lot has changed in its decades of service.
By contrast, the Yankee has a state-of-the-art “glass” cockpit. Six multifunction computer screens have taken the place of several dozen analog gauges, toggle switches and single-function light bulbs.
“Everything is now done right here on these screens,” Humphrey said. “The flight controls are a lot more efficient.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than with the aircraft’s digital mapping system, one of the various display modes of the cockpit computers. The GPS-enabled program allows a pilot to have wide- or narrow-view maps all on the same screen.
“It used to be that I had to prepare my maps before each flight … what areas and at what scale I wanted,” Humphrey said. Then he’d have to arrange them according to the mission at hand “and put them in my flight suit pocket in the order I think I’d need them.”
Now pilots can do all that through the aircraft’s computer system. The same computer system has made maintenance easier, at least in the diagnostic phase, according to Cpl. Mathew Bishop, an avionics technician training on the Yankee.
“Most of the troubleshooting can be done through the computer system,” Bishop said. “It’s self-diagnostic” like most modern cars. When something breaks, the helicopter will tell technicians what is wrong with it.
“We no longer have to take components out and send them off for testing,” Bishop said.
Gunnery Sgt. James Wozniak, an airframes technician, was with the first squadron of Marines to deploy with the Yankees to Afghanistan. In combat, the aircraft had no issues with sand infiltration and proved “extremely versatile,” he said.
Over a seven-month period, his squadron was combat ready 89 percent of the time, a rate Wozniak called “amazing.” As with every new piece of equipment troops carry into combat, some kinks had to be worked out, he said.
So far the challenges with Yankee model Hueys have dealt less with the aircraft than with finding replacement parts. The new hydraulic flight controls have had some issues, but none are too serious, he said. Because the rotors are made of carbon fiber, Wozniak has to send his Marines to a special school to learn how to repair them.
Unlike retrofitting old platforms as some services have done, the new Hueys don’t use the same parts as older models. With different engines and a nearly complete design overhaul, Marines can’t strip Novembers to repair Yankees, Wozniak said.
“Parts availability has been somewhat of an issue, but Bell has been working on that,” Wozniak said. “But any new platform is going to have issues. It always seems like you get the aircraft and the parts come later.”
Oldham and von Tersch recognize that more power and greater range translate to a tougher, more capable aircraft. Still, they appreciate the opportunity they’ve had to crew a piece of machinery that is soundly a part of Marine Corps lore.
Oldham learned to crew the iconic UH-1N just in time to memorize the thrum of the November model’s dual rotors. They create a “whopping” sound familiar to any Marine. The November will be the last generation of Hueys to make that noise, a ubiquitous element to the soundtrack of any Vietnam-era footage.
“The sexy whop-whop is gone,” Oldham said. “Being a November crew chief was a real honor. But you can look at this new aircraft and see the old legacy there.”