Magazine article National Defense

Military Helicopter Fleets Showing Their Age

Magazine article National Defense

Military Helicopter Fleets Showing Their Age

Article excerpt

Whether they belong to the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines, military helicopters are aging fast.

Many models are expected to reach the end of their operational lives in the 2030 to 2040 timeframe.

As it stands, none of the services have concrete plans for what to do when their various fleets become obsolete Beyond that date, nearly everything that can be bolted on or replaced on the airframes will have been done and the risk of flying the aging aircraft will outweigh their utility, according to officials.

"My helicopters are not Christmas trees," said Navy Capt. Paul Esposito, commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. "We can't just keep hanging things off them. Helicopters have a finite size and a finite amount of power."

The last 10 years have been brutal on many of these aircraft--flying combat support and search-and-rescue missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly every make and model of helicopter available is straining under constant use, myriad ad-hoc upgrades and age.

Army aviators alone have flown 4 million hours in the two wars.

"That's a significant, significant body of work," Col. Richard Koucheravy, chief of the aviation division at the Department of the Army headquarters, said. "The impact of those hours is going to be felt in our fleet for a long time to come."

Koucheravy, along with Esposito and others, spoke at Helicon Summit East, a symposium on rotary wing aircraft hosted in December by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.

Rotary wing commanders' desire to replace the aircraft by 2030 may run up against an uncertain future when development dollars could run dry.

"It's a workout keeping these things going and we are still flying the snot out of them," Esposito said.

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The modernization programs military officials are calling for would prove a hefty bill in any budget environment.

With few exceptions, the helicopter designs used by the various military branches are at least 30 to 50 years old. The CH-47 Chinook has been around since the early 1960s. The UH-1 "Huey" design is just as old. Even the relatively new Apache attack helicopters used by the Army are going on their 20th year in service.

Other branches' aircraft are experiencing the same fatigue.

Used for everything from Army reconnaissance and combat support to anti-piracy missions flown off aircraft carriers, helicopters are increasingly the backbone of each of the services. They are also a mainstay of humanitarian missions worldwide.

While acquisition planners wait for the budget ax to fall, projects are under way to develop a next-generation vertical lift vehicle that can fulfill the almost universal desire for faster, tougher helicopters, or some other revolutionary flying machine that preserves their capabilities while enhancing safety and speed.

The Army is leading the search for the joint multi-role vertical lift technology that could replace traditional military helicopters.

Meanwhile, industry representatives say the future is now. They are pushing ahead with their own next-generation designs.

Sikorsky's two-seater X-2 is tested and has already flown. It hovers like a helicopter and flies as fast as some fixed-wing aircraft.

The X-2 technology, with twin coaxial rotors that spin in opposite directions and a "pusher" propeller on the tail, is being developed into the S-97 Raider by Sikorsky. Able to fly at more than 200 miles per hour--faster than the speediest helicopter--it was offered in 2010 as a replacement for the Army's scout helicopter.

With the capacity to carry up to six troops, along with a flight crew of two, the Raider could be developed to fulfill a number of desired roles, according to company documents describing the technology.

EADS has developed an X-3 hybrid helicopter that could meet the joint multi-role specifications. …

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