Affordable Options Available to Upgrade Military Helicopters
Recent analysis by the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan shows that helicopter investment will drop to just more than half of what it is now — from more than $12 billion annually to $6.7 billion by 2018.
The Army’s future vertical lift (FVL) initiative is a laudable effort to create an affordable family of aircraft. Even though that includes flying technology demonstrators this decade, it will not deliver new aircraft and technologies until well into the 2030s. That leaves more than a decade-long gap of capabilities.
The United States can still improve the effectiveness and safety of its helicopter fleet without the large expense of buying new aircraft. There are significant opportunities for improvements that can be implemented quickly and have dramatic impacts on military operations without derailing the budget and FVL investment.
Infantry was once considered the “queen of battle” because, like the chess piece, it could maneuver and strike anywhere. That now requires helicopters for troop movement, fire support, logistics, reconnaissance and more. Helicopters, and now some unmanned aircraft, are providing critical surveillance and accurate firepower on surface ships.
Since the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001, the rotary-wing community has suffered more than 420 crashes with more than 630 deaths. Most of the crashes and deaths were not the result of enemy action. The vast majority of them were due to the same challenging environmental conditions that have been killing rotary-wing crews for decades — brownout/whiteout, flying into wires and controlled flight into terrain — especially during takeoffs and landings.
Commanders have accepted these crashes and deaths because modern warfare is not possible without helicopters.
Helicopters continue to face surmountable environmental challenges that other aviation communities have overcome. Despite all the contributions to warfare, the modern helicopter suffers from a lack of situational awareness. Modern fighters exist in a world where they launch from a controlled airfield or ship into airspace that is constantly managed by ground or airborne controllers who can provide continuous updates to the pilots. Ships have active and passive detection systems that share information so each modern ship can share information to create a common operational picture. By contrast, military helicopters routinely operate from sub-standard airfields, through uncontrolled airspace and into unimproved landing sites to support ground forces in the field.
Iraq and Afghanistan presented some of the most challenging environments seen in aviation — high elevations and hot temperatures combined with powdery-fine dust that swirls into visibility-obscuring mini-tornadoes under the fast-spinning rotors.
The Defense Department has the ability to mitigate many future crashes using existing or emerging technology.
There are three types of information that can be provided to rotary-wing pilots to minimize the threat posed by the environments they fly in. Using a combination of a synthesized cockpit display of aircraft state — such as speed, direction and power — automated flight controls and real-time visual environment display, pilots can have the right information to avoid crashes in these punishing environments.
While this is good news, the better news is that this technology will work well in other environments. Investment in these modifications for the current fleet of helicopters makes financial and moral sense. The more than 400 helicopters that were lost cost more than $5 billion to replace, and the more than 600 lost service members represent another sizable investment in training and experience.
Most helicopters have some type of information on speed, direction and power, but it is dispersed around the cockpit on various displays designed for stand-alone purpose — a power indicator, an airspeed indicator or a vertical velocity display. In many cases the information becomes useless when the helicopter is flying at the slow speeds required for takeoff and landing because of the disruption caused by the downward flow of the rotor wash.
Some helicopters have been equipped with displays that provide all of this information on a single screen. The best of these displays automatically transition from specialized pictures based on the phase of flight and use data sources that are not degraded by rotor wash such as GPS and radar altimeters. A single display might show a moving map while cruising to aid in navigation, but automatically switch to a landing display showing altitude, vertical velocity, as well as forward and lateral speed (drift) when the aircraft’s speed drops below 50 knots. This technology can be installed in aging aircraft.
The next level in advanced avionics involves adding automatic flight controls to land the aircraft without manual input from the pilots. It is an amazing capability that has been used successfully in some of the most remote, unimproved locations in the world. For newer helicopters, it is possible to add systems to take command of the flight controls using pilot-determined parameters — speeds, vertical velocities, touchdown locations — so the computer can be activated and fly the landing to touchdown without manual control by the pilot.
The Air Force installed both these systems on its fleet of HH-60s and the now-retired MH-53s. While the H-60s were delivered in the 1980s and 1990s, the basic H-53 design dates back to the 1960s. These new avionics upgrades can be added to much older airframes and used in scenarios such as dust, over water or in blowing grass. The next phase for this technology may include a data-link to Navy ships so helicopters can take-off and land from ships with less risk, especially at night and in poor weather.
Another technology that can be added to existing helicopters to improve their survivability is a real-time visual environment display. This is the least mature of the group, but has the potential to complete the situational awareness picture that helicopter pilots have lacked. Instead of relying on aerial photographs of landing areas that are 24 hours or more old, pilots can have real-time sensors added to their aircraft that provide an updated visual display of the area around their aircraft.
Like the synthesized cockpit display, this can be tailored for the phase of flight the helicopter is in — looking for forward hazards when in cruise flight, but switching to a 360 degree view at landing speed to assess the landing area. This system could be integrated with the synthesized display so pilots have a single place to gain critical information about their landing or takeoff to augment or replace their outside view. This display would be able to show wires strung between poles — a constant hazard to low flying aircraft — and small towers in the cruise mode, but then switch to displaying surface features such as ditches, ravines or man-made obstacles in landing areas like barrels, tree stumps and small vehicles.
Pilots do not always see these obstacles given the limited time available to see the landing area when coming across trees, buildings or due to darkness. There are many efforts underway to develop these technologies. The most mature is an effort by U.S. Special Operations Command.
The Defense Department hasn’t invested in a new rotary-wing design since the 1970s. And while the FVL effort might provide modern, economical, effective aircraft, the U.S. military needs improvements now. When the solutions are in hand and easily implemented, there is no more reason to delay.
Eric Braganca is a retired Air Force officer who flew H-1s and H-53 helicopters, and was the chief engineer for the CV-22 tilt-rotor. He is currently a consultant for WBB.