Combat Rescue Helicopter Program on Schedule

By Vivienne Machi
Concept art for the HH-60W combat rescue helicopter

Concept Art: Lockheed Martin

The Air Force’s effort to field a new combat rescue helicopter in the 2020s is moving forward on time, a change from years of false starts and schedule delays that have held up a replacement for the current HH-60G Pave Hawk for nearly a decade.

The service in 2014 awarded the engineering and manufacturing development phase contract to Sikorsky — which is now under Lockheed Martin — to develop a Black Hawk derivative aircraft known as the HH-60W. The contract includes nine aircraft and related training and maintenance systems for a total value of nearly $1.6 billion. The Air Force has indicated a desire to purchase 112 aircraft to replace its aging Pave Hawk fleet.

The combat rescue helicopter program includes the HH-60W aircraft — a derivative of Sikorsky’s UH-60M Black Hawk platform, said Tim Healy, Sikorsky combat rescue helicopter program director.

The company modified several capabilities to meet the Air Force’s unique requirements for the combat rescue mission, he said in an interview.

One of the biggest changes was made to the fuel system, he said. Black Hawks possess a 360-gallon main fuel tank and the HH-60G was outfitted with large auxiliary tanks in the cabin. The Whiskey aircraft will have a 660-gallon tank, and will also include an air-refueling probe and system, as well as a dump system so pilots can jettison extra fuel if needed, he noted.

Sikorsky made structural changes to the aircraft to accommodate the extra fuel, and opened up space in the cabin for specialized seating, foldable stretchers and medical equipment with related power systems, he added.

These improved capabilities will provide significant benefits for HH-60W aircrew, Healy noted.

“We’ve actually been able to give them as much fuel as they had in the HH-60G, but give them back 20 inches of cabin space … from fore to aft,” he said.

The HH-60W will also receive an upgraded tactical mission kit that provides new and improved avionics for the pilots and cabin crew, Healy said. It includes electro-optical/infrared sensors, radars and situational awareness systems “that bring intelligence and operational information into the cockpit,” he added. The data will be integrated through two advanced mission computers and then displayed to the air crew on screens throughout the aircraft. The addition of more black boxes also prompted Sikorsky to improve the aircraft’s avionics cooling system, he noted.

The company has also made changes to the weapon system. Healy, a retired Air Force colonel who flew Pave Hawks in Afghanistan, said a combat rescue platform must be able to properly defend itself and troops on the ground.

Sikorsky installed a new mounting system on the fuselage outside the windows to provide gunners with the ability to fire from the side of the aircraft and for pilots to shoot in a fixed-forward method, he said.

“You can be firing them in fixed-forward and literally within a second, you can transition the weapon to … a side-fire mode,” he added. Per Air Force requirements, the new mount will be equipped with two .50 caliber machine guns and a 7.62 mm Gatling gun, he said.

While the Air Force is moving as quickly as possible to develop the HH-60W, the current Pave Hawks continue to perform as needed, said J. David Schairbaum, the service’s combat rescue helicopter system program manager.

“It can meet the mission as designed, but it can get improved capabilities,” he added.

Healy noted that the Air Force has been engaged in continuous combat since 1991, and through that entire time period, Pave Hawks have been on combat alert.

“They have conducted some of the most dangerous, most demanding missions in the DoD continuously since that time. And by the U.S. Air Force’s statements, they have real challenges in terms of availability,” he said.

The initial contract award for the engineering and manufacturing design phase called for four aircraft at a price of nearly $1.3 billion. In January 2017, the Air Force exercised a contract option to build five additional system demonstration test aircraft, increasing the award amount to nearly $1.6 billion, Schairbaum said.

If the service moves ahead with production for all 112 aircraft, the contract could be worth nearly $8 billion, Healy said.

The program office conducted the critical design review for the aircraft in May 2017, and the training system completed its own review in September. That gave Sikorsky the green light to begin assembly on nine aircraft and one training system in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Healy said.

He predicted the first helicopter will move into final assembly sometime in February, and said Sikorsky is on track to meet the six-month schedule incentive set by the Air Force. The baseline contract calls for the contractor to reach the final step of the EMD phase within 75 months of receiving the award, with a financial incentive if it is reached within 69 months, Schairbaum said.

Component and software testing is underway, Healy said. Flight testing is currently expected to take place in fall 2018, with a Milestone C decision slated for summer 2019. Should the Air Force move forward with plans to procure 112 aircraft, it plans to award two low-rate initial production contracts consisting of between eight and 12 aircraft in mid-2019 and mid-2020, respectively. A full-rate production decision could come in fiscal year 2021, and six full-rate production lots are planned with annual awards from 2021 to 2026, Schairbaum said. Final aircraft deliveries are expected in 2029.

Sikorsky has also seen international interest in the HH-60W aircraft, Healy said. At least six countries have expressed interest in the helicopter, he added, describing them as “countries that have a need for long-range special operations, combat rescue or the types of maritime control missions that require that long range and highly sensor-laden aircraft.”

Whether or not the Air Force chooses to purchase more aircraft, “with the international interest, I am very optimistic that this as a product line is going to be very appealing,” he said.

Advantageous aspects of the aircraft include its relatively compact frame and its component commonality with the UH-60M Black Hawk and other H-60 variants, he noted.

 “You get a very high-end level of capability, but you get very low cost in terms of its initial cost compared to larger aircraft, and its sustainability compared to any aircraft,” he added.

The smaller the external size of the aircraft, the more easily it is deployed on transport. That allows for rapid deployment into combat theaters, he noted.
Militaries who already employ a Black Hawk variant could see the HH-60W as complementary to their fleet, since the majority of its components and sustainment systems would be the same, he added.

The combat rescue helicopter program has been relatively smooth since its start, as opposed to previous efforts to replace the Pave Hawk.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a defense and aerospace market analysis firm in Fairfax, Virginia, said the history of trying to replace the HH-60G has had its share of drama.

“The Pave Hawk is a great machine, it’s just that it is very old and combat attrition has taken its toll,” he said.

The Air Force and Sikorsky produced 112 of the original MH-60Gs in the 1980s and early 1990s, he said. Since then, the United States has been more engaged in a variety of regions with a greater reliance on air power, he noted. “All of a sudden, you had 100 Pave Hawks doing a fairly — and increasingly — intense mission, aging, getting shot at, sometimes being destroyed.”

Around 2003, the Air Force began a program intended to procure a new combat search-and-rescue helicopter, known as CSAR-X, Aboulafia said.

Sikorsky proposed the H-92 medium-lift helicopter, which weighs “about 40 to 50 percent more than a Black Hawk,” he added. AgustaWestland worked with Lockheed Martin to propose the AW101 rotorcraft, while Boeing ultimately won the competition in 2006 with its HH-47, a variant of the MH-47G special operations version of the Chinook.

The contract award was protested by the other companies, and one of the protests was upheld by the Government Accountability Office in a March 2007 report, which said the Air Force’s evaluation of operations and support costs was “inconsistent with the approach set forth in the solicitation.”

Later, in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2010 budget submission, the program was abruptly canceled amid scheduling delays and as the Defense Department questioned the need for a single-purpose helicopter.

“This program has experienced contracting problems that have led to delays and higher costs. A prime contractor was selected but, because of multiple protests by the losing contractors, the program has not begun development,” the submission report said.

The original cost estimate for the program was approximately $11.5 billion, according to the report.

The Air Force opted to refurbish used UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters in 2014 to fill the gap, Aboulafia said.

But in the end, there simply weren’t enough Black Hawks to be modified, he noted. The service issued a request for proposals for a new combat rescue helicopter program in 2012, ultimately awarding Sikorsky the contract in 2014.

Healy said the current program’s progression could not be compared to previous efforts to replace the Pave Hawk. Considering the Air Force and Sikorsky have an actual contract with defined requirements this time around, “I don’t even think those issues are even applicable right now,” he added.

He noted that in the nearly four years since the contract was signed, Sikorsky has applied lessons learned from other aviation programs, such as the Marine Corps’ CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter and the S-97 Raider program. The team has implemented new digital design techniques honed on the King Stallion in the combat rescue helicopter program, he noted.

“We have completely gone to model-based designs,” he said. “Our factory craftsmen come in and they put on virtual reality goggles and they practice building the aircraft before we have parts ever made. We take lessons that they learn from that virtual reality build … and we actually put it back in the design.”

All of the new components going into the HH-60W are first designed using 3D models, then workers laser-scan the interfacing sections, he added. “We have an exact digital depiction of what we’re going to interface with. If it’s a legacy Black Hawk part, ... when we combine Whiskey Hawk and Black Hawk parts … they fit perfectly.”

Data has shown that this process and other advanced manufacturing techniques have shaved years off the manufacturing learning curve compared to previous Black Hawks, he noted. “It’s really going to pay off in terms of schedule and quality and, in the end, cost for the Air Force, because we’re eliminating a lot of the rework,” he said.

“Pushing the HH-60 variant into the digital age … is going to have a big benefit for all of our customers,” he added. 

Topics: Air Power

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