Magazine article National Defense

Aging Scout

Magazine article National Defense

Aging Scout

Article excerpt

With no replacement in sight, Army's oldest helos keep going

The Army's oldest and busiest scout helicopters were supposed to be retired by now. Instead, maintenance crews scramble to keep them operating around the clock, in two theaters of war.

The OH-58A Kiowa helicopter was first deployed to Vietnam in 1969. It later became the OH- 5 8D Kiowa Warrior - a single-engine, two-seat, reconnaissance and direct-fire support aircraft. The Army had planned to replace it with a sophisticated "armed reconnaissance helicopter," but the troubled program is on hold. The Kiowas will now be around for years to come.

Kiowas have flown more than 400,000 hours in Iraq, or 72.2 monthly hours per craft, the Army said. In Afghanistan, the helicopter has flown nearly 39,000 hours, or 80.4 monthly flight hours per vehicle. That workload is triple what the aircraft would fly before the wars, said Army Chief Warrant Officer Deren Cook, aviation maintenance officer for the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. Cook has flown the Kiowa for 16 years.

"Keeping them going at this pace has presented some challenges, especially for the maintainers," he said in an email from Iraq.

Cook said that the age of the fleet is making it far more difficult for crews to repair the rotorcraft because parts are hard to find and even routine maintenance tasks are becoming far more labor intensive.

"I'm seeing more sheet metal repairs being done these days than I did 10 years ago," said Cook. Problems with rivets and sealing are also more frequent, he added. "There is no denying the airframes are old but with proper preventative maintenance I believe they have a few more years left in them."

Airframe repairs take longer to complete, said Cook. This creates complications for units that depend on these aircraft for their missions.

Another concern is excess weight in the aircraft, which undermines engine performance. Cook said the Army should invest in technologies that could help bring down the weight of the Kiowa. "I think one of the biggest improvements that can be made is to increase the power-to- weight ratio," said Cook. "With today's technology, in my opinion, weight reduction initiatives could be fielded more rapidly."

Under the Army's so-called "reset" program, a unit's aircraft receive major overhauls at government- or contractor-owned depots after the unit returns from a 12- or 15-month deployment. Some aircraft go even longer in between resets as some are now left in Iraq for the next unit to "fall in on," said Cook. For the Kiowa, there is no specific flight-hour requirement to reset an airframe.

He said the Kiowas would benefit from more frequent "mini-resets" and additional maintenance before the unit deploys. "Once the unit has their aircraft out of reset, I've noticed they tend to fly them hard in preparation for the next deployment," Cook said. "If there was the capability to do a mini reset the last couple months prior to deployment, a unit would arrive in theater with basically refreshed aircraft."

Despite their resilience, the Kiowas have suffered their share of war losses. A spate of crashes in Iraq - one in November and two more in January - was a reminder that there are no more aircraft to replace the ones lost.

The Army's fleet, however, is large with 340 Kiowas in the current inventory. According to the Army, it has lost 20 aircraft. The service said it plans to invest at least $1 billion to keep the fleet going until its retirement in 2020.

The Government Accountability Office reported in January that the heightened demand for the Kiowa significantly "increased the need for repairs and replacements through procurement. …

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