International Chinook Sales Poised to Keep Boeing Humming

By Dan Parsons
Troops and military leaders from more than a dozen nations got a taste of what the Boeing Chinook helicopter can do by riding around in U.S. aircraft during combat in Afghanistan.

Returning home, military officers from several nations felt the lack of a heavy lift rotorcraft and have purchased their own fleets of the dual-rotor aircraft. With the end of U.S. Army Chinook orders in sight, Boeing’s Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, plant is hoping to hum past 2019 on international purchases, company officials said.

“Across the board, the Chinook program has been recognized by the international community,” said Mark Ballew, director of business development for cargo and utility helicopters programs for Boeing Military Aircraft. “When U.S. allies are deployed in Afghanistan or wherever, they are riding in the back of our Chinooks, or they have to borrow it and then realize that it is a capability that they want for themselves.

“It provides capabilities that nothing else can do in terms of high-altitude [and] large cargo,” he added. “And every international customer that has bought a Chinook has come back and wanted more or an upgrade.”

The Netherlands in 2006 became the first export customer for the CH-47F, the most advanced Chinook with an all-digital cockpit and “fat tanks” that double the fuel capacity and range of the previous model. The Dutch first flew their new Chinooks in 2011, according to a report by Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with the Teal Group.

Since then the “floodgates have opened” for international CH-47F sales, he said. For myriad missions — nation building, counterinsurgency and disaster relief — “the CH-47 is essential for all of these, and the existing D-model force is being worn down at a faster than expected rate. And there is no alternative,” Aboulafia said.

Italy, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Canada and Australia have all purchased F-model Chinooks since 2010. Singapore and South Korea have expressed interest, Aboulafia said. India is buying 15, and a follow-on order is in the offing. Malaysia is another likely customer, among other Southeast Asian nations.

“Beyond that, all armies need something to move a platoon, and while the CH-53K and the Russians represent some competition, Boeing will capture almost all of this market,” Aboulafia said.

Foreign military and direct commercial sales customers have been impressed not only by the aircraft’s unique capabilities, but also by the timely and economical recent delivery of 15 aircraft to the Royal Canadian Air Force, Ballew said.

Canada decommissioned its heavy-lift helicopter capability in the 1990s. But its experience in the war in Afghanistan highlighted a need to resurrect the program.

“That experience led the government of Canada to the conclusion that we should have the ability to transport troops and equipment on the scale that the Chinook can do on a regular basis,” said Col. Andrew Fleming, project manager for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s medium- to heavy-lift helicopter program office. The resultant military heavy lift helicopter program is tailored from scratch to the specific needs of the Canadian military based on the experience of Chinook pilots in Afghanistan.

Canada initially bought six D-model Chinooks from the U.S. government and now is the owner of 15 modified CH-47Fs.

Custom improvements include a self-defense suite that improves the safety of passengers and crew, as well as long-range fuel tanks that increase operational flexibility in Canada’s vast northern wilderness, Fleming said.

Even with the modifications, the Canadian procurement went as smoothly as a military development program can progress. The 15 aircraft went from the drawing board to delivery in about a year.

“Achieving first flight ahead of schedule on a developmental program like this is unusual … in this industry,” said Steve Parker, Boeing’s vice president for cargo helicopter programs and H-47 program manager. “It shouldn’t be. Unfortunately it has been.”

“Delivering 15 aircraft in 12 months [is] unheard of I would say,” he adds. “To me, the message is, in America, we can do these things and we can make it repetitive.”

Parker conceded that the aircraft have been in production for nearly 50 years, so cranking them out at a fast pace to satisfy international demand does not seem like a great achievement on the surface.

The new aircraft incorporate the most advanced avionics systems and other technologies available. The Canadian Chinooks also were tailor-made to fulfill that nation’s need for an aircraft that can support humanitarian missions in its vast northern territories. The final aircraft of the lot was delivered to Canadian officials during a June 30 ceremony at Boeing’s Pennsylvania production facility.

“This has been a very successful program in that its contract signature is on schedule. It’s also on budget, so there are lessons that can be applied to Army and Navy programs and we are in close communication with our colleagues,” Fleming said.

The program remained on shedule and on budget since 2009. Its first flight was in June 24, 2012, and exactly one year later, Canada received its first CH-147F, as the country designates its helicopters, at the Philadelphia facility. It will become a model for future Canadian military procurement programs, Fleming said.

The CH-47F that carries twice the fuel of a standard Chinook built for the U.S. Army is being marketed as the international, long-range variant, Parker said. The company is seeing interest from the U.S. government, as well, he said.

Eight international contracts are already being filled by Boeing’s Pennsylvania plant, which has two production lines. A primary line moves once every six days and handles larger orders like those for Australia, Canada and the U.S. Army. A secondary line produces specialized aircraft like the MH-47G for U.S. Special Operations Command. Eight new-build G-model Chinooks are in production now. The first will be delivered in September.

Jim Folmar, director of operations for CH-47, said the facility is capable of producing six aircraft per month if demand increases. The factory recently completed a $170-million renovation to bring it up to modern manufacturing standards without halting production.

Boeing moved to the former Baldwin Locomotive factory in the mid-1960s to ramp up production in support of the Vietnam War. At that point, the facility was cranking out one helicopter per day, Folmar said. It now produces five per month, up from just 10 per year before the Iraq War began in 2003.

At least another five foreign military sales orders are expected in the next five years, Ballew said. Eighteen nations currently fly the aircraft, many of which are expected to place follow-on orders in coming years.

Along with India, Turkey has also expressed interest. Boeing officials regularly meet with high-ranking defense officials from other nations including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“In this case the U.S. government is benefitting from a lot of the foresight that the Canada Chinook has,” Parker said. The basic fuselage of the Canadian helicopter is the same as SOCOM’s MH-47G.

Boeing also hosts a worldwide Chinook operator’s conference, which was held most recently in June. The quarterly forum allows countries to provide Boeing with feedback and for owners to exchange information on operations, maintenance and potential upgrades. Boeing uses the discussions to guide its internal research-and-development investment, Parker said.

“It’s very enticing for customers, because the budget environments across the world are under pressure, as they are here,” Parker said. “So … if you can pool a requirement, get some industry investment in terms of IRAAD up front and then execute at a lower cost for everybody, it’s a win-win.”

The Canadian fleet is already in operation and participated in Operation Nanook in August. Nanook is an exercise designed to assert Canada’s sovereignty over its northern territories and for the military to practice operations in an Arctic environment. Fleming also said the aircraft is ideally suited to operations typically required in summer months in far-flung areas of the Yukon and Northwest territories.

The U.S. Army is in the process of outfitting all of its active, National Guard and reserve Chinook units with the CH-47F, according to Ballew.

Boeing is in the midst of a multiyear-II contract with the Army. The first aircraft from that deal, configured as an F-model, was delivered in July, a month ahead of schedule.

The $4 billion contract for 155 Chinooks was awarded in June 2013 and allows for an additional 60 aircraft. Australia, Turkey and the UAE will also take delivery of the advanced Chinook produced under the contract.

Improvements to the D-model Chinook include a new cargo on-off loading system and a “cargo platform health environment” that monitors wear-and-tear on the airframe to make maintenance more efficient and ultimately reduce lifecycle cost, according to company information.

The U.S. Army’s program of record is 464 aircraft that will serve as the service’s primary heavy lift rotary wing platform into the 2060s. The 300th aircraft in that program was delivered in August.

When the final Chinook is delivered, all Army units will be flying F-models. Plans are in the works to extend production beyond 2019, Ballew said.

Along with international sales, Block-2 upgrades to the Army’s F-model Chinooks also will provide work for the Boeing factory through the 2020s. The Army’s CH-47Fs will cycle back through the factory for upgrades that will improve their lift, speed and avionics.

An advanced rotor that is currently in testing is a one-to-one replacement of the existing blades that can produce an added 1,500 to 1,800 pounds of lift. The rotors will be installed on new-build aircraft beginning in the 2018 timeframe, Ballew said.

The aircraft also will be outfitted with new forward and aft transmissions to increase speed and will include new fuel tanks to increase range.

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, Procurement

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