Friday, January 14, 2011

USMC AH-1Z To Deploy In Late 2011

By Amy Butler
Amarillo, Hurst and Fort Worth, Texas(AW&ST)

A decade after first flight, the U.S. Marine Corps’ AH-1Z attack helicopter finally graduated from a turbulent operational evaluation and is being readied for its first shipboard deployment.
The service plans to field the AH-1Z Vipers, commonly known as Zulus, with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in November. It will operate alongside its sister aircraft, the UH-1Y Venom, dubbed the Yankee, which achieved initial operational capability in 2008.
This deployment will be the first time the Marines are able to blend the capabilities of these new utility and attack aircraft—and their improved performance—into a single Marine light helicopter attack squadron during operations at sea. Soon thereafter, the Zulus are likely to head inland to support soldiers in Afghanistan.
Progress on the U.S. Navy’s $12.1-billion H-1 upgrade program had been slow and riddled with management, fabrication and reliability problems only a few years ago. But prime contractor Bell Helicopter, a division of Textron, has smoothed out performance on the program as part of a larger effort to be more responsive to customer needs and deliver aircraft on schedule and budget (see p. 44).
The Zulu portion of the H-1 program comprises 189 aircraft, 131 of which will be remanufactured AH-1W Super Cobras. Many Ws are operating in support of troops in Afghanistan, so buying new Zs takes priority over pulling Ws out of the fleet for modification. The service is now 52 attack helicopters short of its requirement, so purchasing 58 new helicopters leaves little margin for attrition, says Col. Scott McGowan, Marine Corps aviation plans branch chief.
The Zulu provides a major capability boost, including a shift to four- from two-blade main and tail rotors and an improved weapons load. Also part of the package are a next-generation Lockheed Martin targeting sight system and fully integrated avionics with a new Northrop Grumman mission computer as well as a glass cockpit.
For those “Whiskeys” being converted, the Marines are using a remanufactured T700-GE-401 engine. The new Zulus will have the 401C engine, which will provide a significant performance improvement in high/hot conditions, such as those now hampering helicopter operations in Afghanistan. The remanufactured Zs are likely to receive the new 401Cs eventually, although firm plans are not yet set, Bell officials say.
The “moneymaker” on the Zulu will be the new AN-AAQ-30 targeting system, says Kevin Kett, H-1 program manager at Bell’s Amarillo, Texas, military aircraft facility. “This is the whole heart and soul of the aircraft,” he notes. It is the same system now in use on the Marine Corps Harvest Hawk, a suppressive-fires palette configured for use on the KC-130J aerial refueler.
On the Zulu, the system operates with the 20-mm. nose-mounted gun, rockets and Hellfire missiles. “The target-sight system can out-range any of the weapon systems that are being deployed against this thing. We can now see things out at a distance where somebody can’t shoot back at us,” says Richard Linhart, vice president of military business development at Bell. “It takes the Zulu back into the urban game, because now we don’t have to blow up a whole building. . . . With a thermobaric Hellfire, if we hit the building [today], there is a good chance that building will end up coming down.” This new targeting system can smoothly zoom in on a target with high definition; the existing system simply offers a stepped zoom feature, says Hank Perry, H-1 business development manager. “You can really reach out much farther than you could before.”
n the meantime, Bell is planning to ramp up its international marketing campaign for the Yankee and Zulu in hopes of securing business before Apache Block III can take the aircraft on directly. Bell CEO John Garrison says the near-term focus will be to sell to countries already operating H-1 variants; but he adds that there will be opportunities to capture new customers in the Middle East and Asia. Linhart says Bell intends to underbid the current Apache model and Eurocopter Tiger HAD, which is being fielded in France and Spain. However, with the near-term focus on adding volume to the USMC fleet, production slots are not likely to emerge for foreign customers until 2012 at the earliest.
Reduced training and logistics costs are one advantage the Marines hope to realize by merging the Huey and Super Cobra upgrade programs. Bell officials say they exceeded the original goal of 70% parts commonality on the two aircraft. Perry says 84% of the parts are “interchangeable by part number. . . . You can even interchange the tail booms; whereas on previous aircraft, between the Whiskey and November, there was very little in common,” Linhart notes. The last UH-1Ns rolled off the production line in 1979, with the attack helos following as late as 1993. Until the mid-1990s, “they were going down separate paths of upgrading,” Perry says.
The savings will emerge as these two helicopters, with their complementary missions, begin to operate in the same squadrons. Because the Yankee’s performance exceeded expectations, the Marine Corps shifted the composition of those squadrons. Today, each has 18 AH-1Ws and nine UH-1Ns; future units will include 15 AH-1Zs and 12 UH-1Ys. “Cobra is optimized for precision weapons. Yankee will never do that as well,” McGowan says. “But when you add it all up across the full spectrum of combat operations, . . . it looks like a better mix for us.”
“They will fill [the Yankee] up with gas and carry weapons. On the way out there to drop off their cargo, they will [get] a call [and] they will go in and lay some fire and then go drop their stuff off,” Kett says. “With the November today, they say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ . . . When they do their missions with a November, they either have to offload people, fuel or ammunition” because it is so underpowered in Afghanistan.
With the Zulu, the Marines will be able to “carry twice the amount at the same range or carry the current load twice as far,” he adds.
These improvements did not come to fruition without frustration. The Zulu went through three separate operational evaluation phases, the second of which was halted by the Marine Corps because some production parts were not ready. Bell also encountered major assembly problems mating remanufactured November cabins for the Yankee; the company eventually decided to use all-new Yankee cabin structures built by L-3 Communications in Crestview, Fla. Trying to apply modern, three-dimensional modeling to parts built in the 1970s was “like putting socks on a rooster,” Kett says. These new cabins were brought into final assembly in production Lot 3.
At issue for the Zulu’s development were various management, software and reliability issues, says Col. Harry Hewson, Naval Air Systems Command’s H-1 project manager.
These and other issues at Bell prompted Delores Etter, the former procurement chief for the Navy, to examine alternatives to the H-1 upgrade in the event of a termination. The ­company was also one of only two contractors decertified from the Pentagon’s Earned Value Management ­System, which is the standard tool used to track and audit a company’s cost and schedule performance. These issues have since been resolved, and the Zulu was finally deemed suitable and effective last year; the Pentagon approved full-rate production in late November.
Bell is delivering aircraft in Lot 7 now. Nineteen H-1s were handed over in 2010 as planned, says Michael Scruggs, vice president of Bell’s military aircraft assembly and delivery operations. To date, 36 Yankees and 13 Zulus have been delivered. In July, Bell selected Kaman Aerostructures in Jacksonville, Fla., to fabricate cabins for the 58 new-build Zulus. The first of these is included in Lot 7. Lot 8, now being negotiated between Bell and the Pentagon, will include 19 Yankees, eight remanufactured Zulus and three new attack variants. Bell officials are eyeing a multiyear buy of H-1s, possibly in Fiscal 2014, to stabilize work for suppliers and reduce the price of the helicopter.
Photo: Bell Helicopter

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