Multi-Mission: Old Birds Keep On Whirlin'

Many helicopters have proven able to perform a variety of commercial and military mission sets over decades of use.

From the get-go, the appeal of dual-purpose aircraft was evident. WWI combat planes were retained postwar as airmail conveyors and, just as popularly, as entertainment – flown by ex-Army Air Service pilots performing crazy stunts at air shows.

Twenty-five years on, in WWII, multirole thinking was applied to helicopters. They could, visionaries said, be tasked for the same missions that the war’s fixed-wing aircraft performed: minor cargo carry, reconnaissance, forward artillery spotting, PsyOps leaflet drops and agent exfiltration.

Some aerialists were doubtful. But in 1942 opposition ebbed and enthusiasm spiked. Sikorsky’s R-4, newly minted and Army-destined, flew 761 miles at 90 MPH and claimed a 12,000-foot ceiling. Milestones accumulated, among them ship deck landing and first combat rescue in 1944. Pentagon planners’ gray matter lit with possibilities.

Another comer was the Bell 47 from 1945, which postwar became the first ‘copter certified for civilian use. This machine, notes a Popular Mechanics retrospective, proved “endlessly adaptable with some 18 variants…everything from lunar lander trainers for the Apollo program to crop-dusters.”

The storied Bell UH-1 Iroquois / Bell 204 “Huey” (first flight 1958) likewise did and does boast multiple roles. It started work for the Army in the early 1960s as a medium-lift general utility, medical, search-rescue asset and 12-man troop carrier. Then the Vietnam conflict widened and serious Medevac capability was added.

Armed ground-support iterations carried rocket pods, M-60 machineguns and General Electrics’ fearsome 5-barrel 7.62 cal. Gatling gun. The Navy, Air Force and Marines likewise still fly Hueys. The war also saw the introduction of the superb, wicked AH-1 Cobra gunship. Though replaced in three services by the Apache gunship, the Marines still use the old Cobra as their chief ground-attack platform.

All these operations and lessons learned prefigured later wars and future civilian applications.

Overseas, Western allies and Soviet bloc nemeses alike through the Cold War made strong progress in helicopter design and production. Moscow’s ramped-up rotorcraft production was allegedly inspired by America’s overarching helo successes in ‘Nam, notably with the UH-1 and AH-1 Hueys.

The United States’ most proficient do-it-all may be Sikorsky’s near-ubiquitous UH-60 Black Hawk (first flight 1974). The medium-lift utility craft has come far from its original Cold War remit, design specs and force projection role of the late 1970s. Many variants and upgrades exist for law enforcement, seismic monitoring, EMS rescues, disaster response, DHS, FBI, FEMA and a host of others.

In a tactical military setting, though, the Hawk has limitations. While standoff armament can be fitted, the cost may be exacted in extra poundage (empty weight 10,265 lbs.), decreased agility and noise. Yes, retrofit engine hushers, night-vision, and thermal, IR/FLIR pods, sand filters and other tools are available, too, plus cyber capabilities. But such equipage can crowd payloads, impeding human and re-supply carriage.

Slimmer, smaller, zippier platforms like Hughes’ veteran 1960s MH-6 Little Birds and AH-6 attack variant (aka “killer egg”) and their ilk are more suitable for getting the jump on ever-alert adversaries. Ambush scenarios are growing increasingly difficult and dangerous for our ground and air assets, given the proliferation of shoulder-fired rockets. Small helos make much smaller targets and are therefore likelier to evade “incoming.”

But for certain missions, a single special-use Hawk is just the ticket for special operators. One example was prime mover on the 2011 capture-or-kill Osama bin Laden mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Thanks partly to the stealth technology and electronic warfare (ELINT) modules apparently fitted to the surviving tail assembly, the operation proved a great success — and a welcome counterpoint to the tragic “Blackhawk down” debacle in Somalia 19 years earlier.

Rotorcraft facets of the Navy are also becoming significant. For instance, the sea services’ innovative Littoral Combat Ship (LCS, program initiated 2002): The Navy calls it a “fast, agile, mission-focused platform” able to operate near coasts and open sea, designed to defeat “anti-access” threats like mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft.

Last month, an LCS hosted a demonstration of the manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) construct. Involved were a manned Sikorsky MH-60S multi-mission Knighthawk (aka Seahawk) and an MQ-8B Fire Scout helo drone, derived from Sikorsky’s Schweitzer S-333 platform. The Navy, pleased, announced the duo had passed shipboard integration tests for LCS operations.

Another successful split-personality model is the instantly-recognizable Bell 206 JetRanger (first flight 1962). To helo cognoscenti, it may exemplify “light corporate helicopter” better than any other in-class competitor. The Ranger began as a military aircraft in the 1960s to satisfy a need for a light observation helicopter.

Bell's D-250 twin blade, single turbine prototype (YOH-4A) lost out to the Hughes OH-6 but, the magazine states, “the company chose to market it as a civilian aircraft, self-funding development of the redesigned, larger 206A which first flew in 1966.”

A Bell 206L3 owned by Maritime Helicopters in Homer, Alaska.Maritime Helicopters

By 1973, over 1,000 helicopters had been sold on the civil market while, PopMech found, the Army had chosen it as a new observation helicopter (OH-58A) and the Navy selected it as a training helicopter (TH-57A). Later Lone Ranger 206 variants reportedly yielded increased performance and capacity. Over 7,300 have been built.

As for thousands of legacy helos of different dimensions and capabilities, they keep fighting the good fight, one “all-new” upgrade following another as earlier comms versions and cockpit assemblies are replaced with something shiny and new. But some hulls themselves are over 60 years old and concerns are heard increasingly about stress and strains on physical superstructures, ancillary hardware and pilots.

In a 2017 wakeup call, plain-spoken Air Force General Stephen Wilson surprised Congress, telling them half the air arm’s inventory could qualify for antique license plates in Virginia.

On occasion, fever-pitch deployment and age have contributed to deaths and injuries of aircrew. The Defense Science Board in 2000 examined these hazards to rotorcraft, noting the fact that maintenance technicians typically are 19-year old sailors wasn’t reassuring. The Pentagon’s equally somber Defense Technical Information Center concludes similarly.

In maritime and other austere environments, rotorcraft are beset by salt encrustation, blistering heat, suddenly appearing fogbanks, Arctic cold, sand intrusions and other severe airworthiness challenges. Some of these deficits have been known for many years, if not decades. Perhaps the question is whether they resonated with the appropriate people.

Last summer, citing the HH-60, the Government Accountability Office in a report summary was dubious that plans had been instituted to confront these deficits. The GAO found that the aging HH-60G inventory has shrunk over the years as a result of mishaps; the material condition of the Air Forces' aging HH-60G fleet has declined and maintenance challenges have increased in part due to extensions beyond the designed service life of the helicopters; and a mission-capable shortage in the 96-unit fleet: about 68 percent in FY2017 versus the mission-capable 75 percent.

Failures were discovered in testing components of the HH-60G’s replacement, the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), as reported in R&WI in February, giving the watchdog agency further reason for concern.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Washington, D.C.-based Teal Group, devotes vast time to studying markets for rotorcraft and other defense equipment, monitoring trend lines and forecasting future uses, perils and the like. He’s more aware than almost anyone of the risks of maintaining America’s near 6,000 rotorcraft fleet, with its large proportion of airframes 20-60 years old or more.

As for the safety of helicopters and aircrew, “you’ve got to be real extra careful,” he told R&WI in an interview. “It’s like the Lockheed KC-130T Hercules Marine transport airplane that crashed about a month ago [killing 16). Yes, [the aircraft] is 50 years old, but with proper maintenance, no reason that should be a problem.” That is, so long as the totality of the craft is being examined by skilled, particularized ground crews.

Compared to military aircraft like the B-52 bomber and Air Force T-38 jet trainer, Aboulafia asserted, “helicopters are in better shape than most people think…because somewhere around the mid-2000s in a budgetary slight-of-hand, all those refurbish programs were converted to ‘new-build.’” He said there were “ugliness exceptions” like the accident-prone Pave Hawk, “but for the most part we’ve actually got in terms of ‘build’ a pretty new fleet.”

As for the coming years, Aboulafia said things aren’t terribly bad. “My default is to be a bit cynical, but just because some models are aging, everything else is in decent shape,” Aboulafia said. “We have a little time to get this ready. And [the Defense Department] have come up with a formula to get the industry to chip in” for prototype development. They “could be leveraged or scaled. But those sorts of things always take longer than expected. So in other words, not hopeless, just proceed with caution.”

“The military certainly has a long history of getting the most out of their rotorcraft,” said Chris Martino, operations vice president at Helicopter International. “‘Multi-mission’ is a common descriptor for helicopters and will continue to be.” He cited the U.S. Coast Guard, remarking it “…only [has] two types of helicopters, but each conduct nearly every mission the Coast Guard…undertakes. Remarkable versatility demonstrated on a daily basis. Military services in other countries demonstrate the same level of versatility, leveraging the capabilities of their aircraft across a wide spectrum of missions.”

On the civil side of the ledger, Martino said there’s been little new scrambling for all-new models. “We have not seen any stark trends that would lead us to conclude that operators are engaged in an overarching replacement of their fleets,” he told R&WI. “We also see multipurpose operations on a routine basis. Of course, there are helicopters that, either by design or outfitting, conduct very limited operations (AeroMed, Heavy Lift, etc.), but in general the helicopter industry is very flexible and resourceful in terms of fitting helicopters into a variety of operations.”

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