Bold & the Beautiful

Boeing offers rotary wing platforms and next generation tiltrotor technology

Atul Chandra

Philadelphia: As part of the Boeing India Media tour 2012, FORCE was invited to visit the company’s rotary wing production facilities at its ‘Mobility’ headquarters in Philadelphia. It is here where the revolutionary Bell Boeing V-22 ‘Osprey’ tiltrotor and CH-47 Chinook tandem rotor, medium-lift helicopter are built. This year, the Chinook celebrated 50th anniversary of the 1st CH-47 Delivery (A model) to the Indian Army. The other place visited was Boeing’s Mesa, Arizona facility where the AH-64D Apache Longbow is produced. The AH-64D Apache Block III has already been selected as the winner of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) requirement for 22 next generation attack helicopters and the CH-47 Chinook is in the running for 15 heavy-lift helicopters for the IAF. Keeping this in mind, the visit was an exciting opportunity to meet with the teams who build these helicopters and also take a look at the production facilities.

Boeing offers rotary wing platforms and next generation tiltrotor technology

The induction of the Apache when it takes place will result in the IAF operating the most capable attack helicopter in the region. The IAF will have 12 out of 22 helicopters fitted with the ‘Longbow’ radar, though all will be fitted with the Target Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS) and Pilot Night Vision Sensors (PNVS). The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has indicated that the IAF would order 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire II missiles and 245 Stinger Block I-92H missiles.

For the last 30 years, home of the Apache attack helicopter has been Boeing’s Mesa, Arizona facility, originally a Hughes facility. The US Army uses Native American tribe names to christen its helicopters, hence the names Apache for the AH-64D and Chinook for the CH-47; the Osprey being primarily developed for the US Marine Core (USMC) does not follow the same naming convention. The Mesa facility is an important production undertaking as it houses flight test and support of the AH-64D Apache Longbow; development, production, flight test and support for AH-6 (originally developed by Hughes) apart from being the headquarters for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and also for handling new technology development for Boeing Phantom Works.

FORCE visited the Apache production line where the last of the Apache Block II models are being built alongside the latest Block III models, and where the IAF’s Apaches will also be built. In the desert heat of Arizona, the Apache reminds one of a scorpion, exuding a menacing presence and no doubt, as those on the receiving end of the Apache have learnt, capable of delivering a sharp sting! For an attack helicopter that first flew in 1975, it is testament to the soundness of the original design and Boeing’s efforts to constantly upgrade the Apache that it remains the most capable attack helicopter flying today. The Apache Block III is the most sophisticated attack helicopter in production today and is packed with weapons and sensors, avionics and hundreds of electronic components.

On entering the modern production facility, it is immediately apparent that the Apache benefits from Boeing’s extensive production expertise that ensures the final product is built to a high standard. A lot of care has been taken to ensure that the factory workers are provided with the right tools, work instructions and convenient placement of assembly parts. Electronic work instructions are provided to ensure that complex tasks can be done faster and more efficiently. Parts belonging to particular assembly are provided as kits, reducing the time to source the required parts. Readymade tool-kits are also made available so that no time is lost in sourcing the required tools. What is obvious is that the care taken to ensure that the person on the shop-floor is made comfortable ultimately results in better efficiency and faster output. The Apache programme also sources a number of parts from countries around the world, with South Korea supplying the fuselage section since 2000 and Netherlands manufacturing the composite avionics panels and the enhanced forward avionics bays.

The IAF will be getting the latest version of the Apache Block III which includes a number of significant improvements. The Block III features an upgraded transmission to cater for the increased thrust (3,400 shp) of the twin T700-GE-701D engines which are now fitted with an enhanced digital engine control unit. The Block III is faster by 28 kmph (combat speed of 303 kmph) as result of improved thrust, composite main rotor blades and better aerodynamics. Boeing says that this results in the Block III being able to hover at 6,000 feet at a temperature of 35 degrees centigrade with a payload of 1.5 tonne. The older versions were only capable of hover at 4,000 feet with lesser payload at the same temperature.

The Block III also uses a greater proportion of composites (up to 30 per cent), with the main rotor blades and spars, equipment fairings and tail stabiliser made entirely of composites. The avionics bays have also been enlarged and the Block III features full open system architecture designed to incorporate ‘plug and play’ capability as also the ability to add on newer systems in an easier manner compared to the earlier federated systems architecture. The cockpit has been reconfigured for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). Low light flying capability with Night Vision Goggles (NVG) has been enhanced with specially configured lights fitted outside the aircraft. An interesting addition to the Apache Block III has been the trials of a new enemy fire detection system that is in prototype phase called the Ground Fire Acquisition System (GFAS). It is undergoing user evaluation trials with the US Army and consists of a number of sensors and cameras that locates incoming fire and provides the crew with location, distance and source of the rounds fired. GFAS uses infra-red (IR) sensors and sensitive cameras to detect the flash of gunfire and then processes this information in real time to provide the information on a display. The system has been designed to differentiate between small arms fire and larger calibre weapons including rocket propelled grenades (RPG).

According to Boeing, the IAF configuration is 99 per cent similar to the US Army configuration with very minor changes such as proposed dual mode landing lights for Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operation and different radios and datalinks. The Apache Block III has the capability to control Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) while in flight but this feature is not on offer to India. The aircraft that flew to India for the trials was a modified Block II helicopter with a significant amount of Block III parts. It had all the performance upgrades of the Block III but not the avionics fit. According to Boeing officials the onboard diagnostics worked very well during flight trials in India. Boeing claims that during the entire flight trials in India, the only spare used was an adhesive bond on ‘trim tab’ for one of the composite main rotor blades. The US government will offer a sustainment package with spares as requested in the Request for Proposal (RFP) and Boeing says that it has already modelled this requirement and provided for it in the bid. There is also a requirement for a field service representative to be stationed in India. The Integrated Electronic Technical Manual (IETM) and operator manual will be the same as issued by the US government.

The Apache Block III just completed its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) at Fort Irwin, California earlier this year and will be operationally deployed in 2013. The Apache Block III programme will continue till 2027 after which an extended Block III version is proposed to remain in service till 2040. The programme calls for the re-manufacture and new build of 690 AH-64 D attack helicopters for the US Army. Boeing will deliver 70 Apaches this year with deliveries expected to peak at 90 next year, with completion of deliveries of the Apache Block II in September 2013. As of August this year, Boeing has delivered 17 Apache Block III helicopters and the rate of production is expected to be maintained at a steady six to eight helicopters a month from 2013 onwards. Interestingly, the first Apache Block III that was rolled out was 27 years old and had already been re-manufactured twice. Only eight of the original A model Apaches now remain in US Army service.

Prior to visiting the Mesa, Arizona facility, FORCE visited the production line for the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The highlight of the visit was the rare opportunity to take a look at the production line for the revolutionary V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. Designed and developed with Bell, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is a technological tour de force that has been developed after a huge effort by both teams and is now proving to be invaluable for the US military during combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the briefing at the facility, Michael Rolecki, program manager, V-22 Program Boeing, confirmed that there have been a couple of introductory conversations with India and Boeing considers it to be a perfect fit for Indian requirements. The company was invited by India to speak about its capability at this year’s Dubai air show, though Boeing terms the preliminary discussions as exploratory in nature. There has also been a lot of interest from the Middle East specifically and Boeing expects that the first export order for the Osprey will be secured by next year. The first impression on seeing the Osprey in the flesh is that it is much larger than one imagines, with a voluminous cargo bay that can carry about nine tonnes of payload or 24 fully equipped troops.

The V-22 Osprey was developed specifically for combat missions for the United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Navy (USN) and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) combat missions. A tiltrotor offers the speed, range and fuel efficiency normally associated with turboprop aircraft combined with the vertical take-off/landing and hover capabilities of helicopters. At the start of this year Lt Gen. Donald Wurster, the US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander praised the tiltrotor, saying that “The Osprey was the single most significant transformation of Air Force Special Operations since the introduction of the helicopter… nearly every mission we have faced in the last 20 years could have been done better and faster with the V-22.” The Osprey certainly offers an impressive set of capabilities but is expensive to acquire and maintain with a flyaway cost (USD 70 million) which is twice as costly as conventional rotary wing platforms. The complicated folding system for the wings, nacelles and rotor blades along with engines that need to overhauled frequently also make it more expensive to operate. Boeing states that the current fleet-wide availability for the entire V-22 fleet in service is in the range of 65 per cent. Boeing is through half of first five year contract for 174 Ospreys and has delivered total of 180 for marines and 22 for USAF. The company is working for second multi-year contract for 98 with options for 24 more expected by December this year.

The Osprey has an unrefueled range of 1,600 km and is fitted with a retractable in-flight refuelling probe to reduce drag. The tiltrotor sees extensive use of composites to the tune of almost 40 per cent and also has special crash resistant seats for the passengers. The tiltrotors unique ‘capabilities shorten’ or ‘compress’ the time needed and maximise the number of personnel transported in situations of high-seas rescue, Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC), and Search and Rescue (SAR) according to the V-22 joint program office. The Osprey is able to get in and out of combat zones much quicker than conventional helicopters and is significantly quieter as well, as the rotors transition to vertical lift mode just above the target area very quickly. The benefit of the tiltorotor was always supposed to be the significantly higher speed – Ospreys have completed 800 mile round trip rescue missions in three hours. In fact, during a rescue of a downed pilot over Libya, an Osprey completed the 265 nm distance in 45 minutes and was on its way back to the carrier before the conventional helicopters had even travelled half the distance.

FORCE was also able to visit the CH-47 manufacturing facility that had just been modernised as part of a USD130 million renovation. The Chinook is now manufactured in a fully air-conditioned facility that also sees senior engineers placed right next to the production line to ensure that design and production delays are kept to the minimum. The US Army Modernisation Program is for 464 new-builds and re-manufactured CH-47F aircraft and 61 M-47G re-manufactured aircraft, and is expected to remain in service till 2060 and likely to complete a century of operations!

The Chinook has been carrying 75-80 troops in combat conditions and is being used by the US Army as an assault platform. The three cargo hooks under the helicopter allow tandem loads to be carried such as 155 mm artillery guns that can be transported at speeds up to 260 km/h and a 105 mm artillery gun can be accommodated inside the cabin. The CH-47I (International), which has been offered to India, is very similar to the CH-47F, except for communication equipment. The F model has a stronger airframe, is designed to reduce maintenance workload and features common avionics architecture with five cockpit displays for advanced situational awareness. An added advantage for the CH-47I is the fact that it can be transported inside the C-17 Globemaster III, greatly enhancing its operational flexibility.

Apache helicopters will join the IAF soon

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