Military helicopters are always advancing in the range of missions served and the technology being developed to support them. Here is what five of the world’s top military helicopter manufacturers are doing to keep up.
Airbus Helicopters Pushes Ahead With Lakota Trainer Deliveries
Airbus Helicopters’ U.S. factory in Columbus, Mississippi, is manufacturing for deployment at the U.S. Army’s helicopter training centers 35 UH-72A Lakotas, which are the military version of Airbus Helicopter’s H145. They are being built under a $273 million U.S. Army contract signed with Airbus in March 2018. Seventeen of the UH-72As will be sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for training entry-level helicopter pilots. Eighteen more will be deployed to the Army’s Combat Training Centers, for training observers/controllers.
This purchase comes after the U.S. Army had already bought 155 UH-72As to replace its 181 TH-67 Creek training helicopters, which are based on the Bell 206B-3. (At present, both helicopters are being used as trainers.) The Army also has more than 412 UH-72As in its fleet serving as light utility helicopters.
“Selecting the Lakota allows Army pilots to train in a twin-engine, glass cockpit environment that is similar to the Apache and the Black Hawk, and identical to the Army’s Light Utility Helicopters,” said Scott Tumpak, Airbus Helicopters’ vice president of government programs. The Lakotas are also equipped to support night vision goggles and other modern military technologies.
In contrast, the TH-67s are single-engine models that use steam gauges and other analog control interfaces. Training on this 20th century platform, rather than the Lakota’s 21st century glass cockpit, “adds an extra hurdle for student pilots to clear as they move from training to active service and deployment,” Tumpak said.
With the U.S. Army contract under its belt, Airbus Helicopters is now setting its sights on the Navy helicopter training program. The Navy is currently using Bell 206-derived TH-57 helicopter trainers and looking to replace them in the years to come. Airbus is pitching the twin-engine H135 as the Navy’s new helicopter trainer. Bell has proposed the modern Bell 407GXi, and Leonardo is promoting the TH-119.
“The H135 is smaller than the UH-72A, but still has two engines and a modern glass cockpit,” said Tumpak. “As a result, it is operationally similar to the larger helicopters that the Navy has in service.”
Bell’s Busy With Deployments
When it comes to the deployment of the latest military helicopter models, Bell is currently focussed on three areas.
The first is the U.S. Marine Corps’ H-1 upgrade program. Under H-1, the Bell AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom are replacing the USMC’s AH-1W SuperCobras and UH-1N Twin Hueys respectively. Both new aircraft offer higher performance and more modern systems than the helicopters they are replacing, plus 85 percent common parts between them for easier servicing and swap-outs.
With the exception of four HH-1Ns operating as search-and-rescue aircraft, “all of the Marine Corps’ UH-1Ns have been retired,” said Scott Clifton, Bell’s director of global military business development. “There are now about 160 UH-1Ys in the Marine Corps fleet, so we have built all the UH-1Ys the USMC decided to buy.”
As for the AH-1Z, according to Clifton, the Marines have already deployed these helicopters on the U.S. West Coast, and are now moving to extend them to their Pacific Ocean bases and, finally to the East Coast. “The Marine Corps likens this transition to changing the tires on your car while still driving down the road,” he said. “The squadron doesn’t stand down from the deployment cycle while it gets its new AH-1Zs and UH-1Ys into service."
The second area is the continuing deployment of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey in the USMC and USAF fleets. Thanks to its tilt-rotor configuration, the V-22 provides faster air speeds, higher ceilings, and much more range than conventional helicopters, plus the ability to be refuelled in-flight. There are now four variants of this model (USMC, USAF, USN, and International) including one being developed for the Japanese navy.
Because the V-22 tilt rotor represents a significant change in operations for the USMC, squadrons receiving these new aircraft are pulled from the deployment rotation in order to retrain their pilots and maintenance staff. Again, the Marine Corps is focused on performance. As soon as these squadrons know how to fly and support their V-22s, they’re right back into the deployment rotation.
“The extra range, power, and fuselage space in the V-22 means that you can fly much further – especially with in-flight refuelling – plus carry far more sophisticated communications and/or medical gear in the large V-22 fuselage,” Clifton said. “That’s something you could not do with legacy helicopter platforms.”
The third area keeping Bell busy is its support for the U.S. Navy helicopter training program. As mentioned above, Bell is proposing its 407GXi as a TH-57 replacement.
Leonardo Helicopters Focusses on Military Usage
Although many people think of civilian/para-public rotorcraft when they think of Leonardo Helicopters, this company actually offers “the largest portfolio of both military and dual-use helicopters,” said Stefano Villanti, Leonardo Helicopters’ senior VP of international campaigns.
Leonardo’s military suite include the AW101, AW149, AW159, and NH90; all of which are “designed according to military specs right from the drawing board,” Villanti said. Meanwhile, the company’s dual-use civilian/military helicopters – including the AW109M, AW119, AW139M, and AW169M – can fulfil 80-90 percent of a dedicated military helicopter’s missions “at a fraction of the cost” of such specialized platforms. Leonardo’s AW609 tiltrotor aircraft also fits the dual-use mode; serving variously as an executive transport, EMS ambulance, or military SAR/utility platform.
Currently, Leonardo military and dual-use helicopters are being deployed in both land- and water-based environments. “They are primarily replacing a range of ageing types worldwide in the 4 to 10/12 categories, plus some single-engine types,” said Villanti. “Operators of older variants of the Lynx can leverage the latest enhancements introduced in this class of maritime multi-role aircraft by transitioning to the AW159," as is being done by South Korea and the UK. “More recently, we have started working with the Italian MoD on the AW249 combat helicopter, having in sight the replacement of the AW129 of the Italian Army,” Villanti says. “With a MTOW in the range of 7-8 tonnes and useful load in excess of 1,800 kgs, the AW249 will have speed and endurance able to sustain the most difficult close air support and armed escort operations.”
Villanti says the AW249 will feature state-of-the-art communication and battlefield management systems, a mission system able to operate and manage UAVs, and a number of situational awareness aids to reduce pilot workload and increase safety. It will also have a gun turret and a flexible weapon system using six wing store stations. The AW249 will be able to carry a combination of air-to-ground/air-to-air missiles, unguided/guided rockets, and/or external fuel tanks.
MD Helicopters’ MD 530F Gains Traction
MD Helicopters Inc. (MDHI) currently has two light scout attack helicopters available to the world’s militaries. These are the MD 530F Cayuse Warrior and the MD 530G Attack Helicopter.
Derived from MDHI’s OH-6 Cayuse light observation helicopter, both versions of the MD 530 offer military users an all-glass cockpit and ballistic-tolerant main/auxiliary fuel cells. The MD 530F/MD 530G are equipped with the Dillon Aero Mission Configurable Armament System (MCAS) for quick and efficient transition between a variety of qualified weapons systems including a podded and un-podded 0.50" calibre machine gun, 7.62mm Gatling gun, 70mm/2.75” guided and unguided rockets, and Hellfire missiles.
As well, the MD 530G Attack Helicopter features integrated, advanced weapons management and mission management systems, plus the Scorpion Helmet Mounted Cueing System for increased accuracy and reduced pilot workload.
MDHI is selling the MD530F and MD 530G through direct commercial sale (DCS) as well as foreign military sales (FMS) acquisition channels. In September 2017, the U.S. government awarded MDHI with a $1.4 billion IDIQ (indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity) contract, to make it easier for U.S. and approved U.S. allied partner nations to buy these aircraft. The IDIQ valuation is based on up to 150 MD 530 light scout attack helicopters being sold in either F or G configurations as required by the customer.
At the same time the IDIQ contract was granted, MDHI received the first delivery order for 30 MD 530Fs to the Afghan Air Force.
“The MD 530F Cayuse Warrior has been a proven performer in support of ground operations and in the execution of close air support interactions since it first arrived in Kabul,” said MDHI CEO Lynn Tilton. “It is extremely gratifying to see that our focus on quality, technology, and rapid delivery has resulted in such a significant contract; one that solidifies MDHI’s position as a preferred provider of armed scout attack helicopter solutions.”
According to MDHI, a number of other countries have expressed interest in acquiring the MD 530F and the MD 530G. The company has committed to deliver any/all contracted units in 12 months or less ARO (after receipt of order).
Sikorsky Covers Today With Black Hawk, Tomorrow with S-97 Raider
Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky is pushing ahead with more missions for its venerable Black Hawk platform and looking to the future with the S-97 Raider; the company’s entry in the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft Competitive Prototype competition.
“This year is the 40th anniversary of the first Black Hawk delivery,” said Chris Dowse, Sikorsky’s director for army systems. “Over that time, the Black Hawk has played a role in nearly every type of military mission that a utility helicopter can play; including assault, cargo, rescue, and troop transport.”
Forty years on, Sikorsky “continues to grow the capability of the Black Hawk for the warfighter,” Dowse said. One of the recent additions has been a commercial off-the-shelf weapons kit for this helicopter. The kit provides foreign militaries with U.S. Special Forces-style attack capabilities at a competitive price.
Given that the U.S. Army has said it expects to operate Black Hawks into the 2070s, Sikorsky is committed to developing new capabilities to meet evolving needs. One such capability is a hardware and software kit to enable optionally piloted flight, or flight with two, one or zero pilots. The no-pilot configuration would, for example, allow the Black Hawk to drop off cargo into hostile areas “without putting a crew at risk,” said Dowse. The one-pilot configuration would free up the second pilot to do other tasks in emergency situations, without compromising the helicopter crew’s safety. Sikorsky has been advancing this capability in an S-76, the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), for about six years.
Meanwhile, Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider is proving its worth in test flights as a fast, maneuverable light tactical helicopter. Derived from the company’s X2 flight demonstrator and related X2 technology, the Raider can carry up to six soldiers plus external weapons. The helicopter’s twin contra-rotating coaxial rotors and tailed-mounted pusher propellor allow it to cruise just below 220 knots/250 mph.
“The Raider continues to meet all flight objectives, demonstrating how Sikorsky’s X2 technology will revolutionize vertical lift,” said Tim Malia, Sikorsky’s director of future vertical lift light. “We are showing how X2 aligns with the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) requirements, filling a critical gap in the Army.” The U.S. Army plans in 2020 to select two companies to submit FARA prototypes, and see these prototypes flying by 2023, according to the draft solicitation.