|While Sikorsky Aerospace Services (SAS) President David Adler looks on, Sharon Nell, director of the U.S. Dept of State Bureau of Intl Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs Office of Aviation, officially signs a contract for up to 110 S-61Ts on Feb. 21 at Heli-Expo. Photo by Andrew D. Parker, Managing Editor|
The U.S. State Department’s decision to replace chartered Russian-made helicopters used to support civil and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has opened up a new and very lucrative line of business for Sikorsky: a government-funded, large-scale upgrade of H-3/S-61 helicopters.
The State Dept.’s own contract already is a boon for the company, calling for the upgrade of up to 110 Sea Kings at a cost of up to $1.675 billion. This works out to a very comfortable unit program cost of about $15 million per aircraft, but it will actually be even more lucrative as most, if not all, of the airframes to be upgraded will be supplied to Sikorsky as government-furnished equipment (GFE), in other words free of charge. And the recent retirement of the S-61 from U.S. Navy service means that a large supply of well-maintained airframes is available without having to recover older airframes from Davis-Monthan AFB.
Even more interestingly, however, this contract will allow Sikorsky to formalize a U.S. government-approved upgrade package that it will then be able to market throughout the world, with the advantage of having already amortized the development and engineering costs. Given the number of S-61s in service throughout the world, and the cost of new naval utility helicopters, it is likely that an affordable, U.S. government approved S-61T upgrade will prove irresistible to many current operators, civil and military, who would be hard-pressed to find new helicopters offering a similar price/performance ratio.
The first four S-61T helicopters, derived from S-61N airframes and now being completed, will be delivered by year-end, and will support the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Although this is the main mission, the State Dept. also plans to use the aircraft wherever it requires an autonomous heli-transport capability of its own.
“The date of this contract is Dec. 29, 2009 and the value is not to exceed $1.675 billion,” according to State Dept. spokesman Andy Laine, and “the period of performance is January 2010 to December 2014.”
The primary mission is to transport passengers and cargo into and out of austere field sites located throughout the Afghan theater of operation. This mission requires that the aircraft have personnel and cargo carrying capacity, long range and flight endurance. Operations are often flown in very rugged, high mountainous terrain that requires optimum take off, climb, and turn performance at high density altitudes, notes the contract’s award notice.
These aircraft will serve in remote areas with few aircraft bases. At times they will operate from forward operating base locations under primitive conditions, and at other times from international airports executing instrument approaches.
Secondary missions include, but are not limited to, force protection, convoy escort, hostile force reconnaissance, quick-reaction-force (QRF) movement and support, and medical evacuation. They may also be required to perform in VIP transport missions.
Furthermore, the aircraft and crews are subject to being targeted by hostile fire. Consequently, they will require defensive aircrew and aircraft survivability systems; other State Department aircraft operating in the region have a Symetrics AN/AAR-47 missile approach warning system combined with the ALE-47 flare decoy dispensing system plus defensive armor for cockpit crew and passenger protection.
The State Department’s unorthodox approach to this contract, officially-designated Medium Lift Rotary Wing Aircraft, is another boon for Sikorsky. Unlike most other aircraft programs, in which the customer sets very detailed specifications which constrain the designer’s freedom of action, in this case the State Department set out what it wanted in terms of helicopter performance, and then let the manufacturer decide how best to achieve those goals.
The first step was to specify which airframes are acceptable for upgrade, given that the government anticipates that both contractor-acquired and government furnished aircraft can be used for the conversion program.
Helicopters intended for upgrade will have new or refurbished airframes with zero accident history involving major structural damage; all major components will have a 50 percent remaining life prior to major inspection or replacement.
Specified equipment is to include dual seat cockpits with dual controls and instrumentation, certified for day/night/NVG, VFR and IFR flight operations, including GPS terminal approach operations.
Payload is set at a minimum of 15 personnel, or a minimum of 4,500 lbs combination cargo and passengers. With this load, and flying missions from and to bases at 7,000-foot density altitudes, the aircraft are required to fly a 200-nm round trip with a 20-minute fuel reserve, at a minimum cruise speed of 100 KTAS. They are also required to be certified to land at maximum authorized gross weight, and have a minimum fuel endurance of 2 hours.
Aircraft will be required to perform over rough mountainous terrain typical of Afghanistan, at elevations that vary from sea level to 14,000 feet MSL, at temperatures that can range from 20 degrees C below ISA at 8,500 feet MSL to 20 degrees C above ISA at 6,000 feet MSL.
Like other State department aircraft operating in the region, the new upgraded S-61s will also be fitted with:
• An AAR/ALE 47 missile launch detection and countermeasures system,
• External cargo capability (cargo hook) on designated airframes,
• Hard mounting points for defensive gun mounts,
• Wiring for defensive weapons system (GAU 17 minigun),
• Crew stations with lightweight defensive armor protection approved by the State Department, and
• An engine inlet barrier filter (IBF) system.
For the rest, major equipment decisions are left with the manufacturer, and the State Dept. informed prospective bidders that “the requirement is for the best configuration to work within the environmental conditions and this should be taken into account in the offeror’s solution to meet the solicitation requirements. Whether it is a glass cockpit, standard steam gages, or a combination it will be determined by the offeror,” it said in response to questions from prospective bidders.
Announcing it had won the contract at Heli-Expo on Feb. 21, Sikorsky noted that it had defined an “exclusive joint upgrade” package together with Pennsylvania-based Carson Helicopters Inc. Called the S-61T Modernization Program, this “incorporates key upgrades that include composite main rotor blades, a state-of-the-art glass cockpit and modular wiring harnesss, all of which dramatically improve aircraft supportability. … Additional features have been incorporated to reduce pilot fatigue and reduced maintenance requirements for increased safety,” but no specifics were provided.
Sikorsky and Carson Helicopters have already developed a number of stand-alone upgrade features for the S-61, such as the vaunted Carson composite main rotor blades, and which include a complete glass cockpit and autopilot supplied by France’s Sagem. This was FAA-certified in 2009, and approval for IFR use is expected this year, according to Carson’s website. Also in 2010, Carson-designed composite blades are due to become available for the S-61’s tail rotor, boosting payload by 300 lbs. because they will absorb less power.
Improved performance of the State Dept. S-61T falls well short of other upgrades, however. In its Feb. 22 statement, Sikorsky says “the S-61T helicopter also has been equipped with 1,200 lbs of added lift capability,” while a similar upgrade carried out by the Royal Navy on its own Sea Kings (see below) resulted in a 2,000-lb increase in lift and 50 kts in cruising speed simply by fitting Carson main rotor blades and AgustaWestland tail rotor blades.
There is still a potential for performance improvement beyond what the S-61T provides, which of course opens the international market even wider. Carson, for example, is already testing the General Electric T-58-16 turboshaft, rated at 1,870 shp, as a possible replacement for the original T-58-140, which is rated at 1,500 shp, thereby providing a 25 percent increase in power.
As defined in the State Dept. contract, the S-61T upgrade will be developed in two basic versions: transport and VIP. Sikorsky Aerospace Services (SAS), the company’s aftermarket division, is prime contractor for the contract, and to date has been awarded an initial order to convert 22 Government-Furnished H3s to the new S-61T configuration according to a very short schedule:
• Two S-61T stretched VIP aircraft to be delivered within 120 days of contract (or by late April 2010),
• Two S-61T short cargo aircraft to be delivered within 120 days of contract, and
• 14 S-61T utility aircraft to be delivered within 360 days of contract.
Despite the different designations, the VIP and cargo helicopters vary only by their seating, the former having airline-type seats and various amenities like reading lamps, and the latter being fitted with troop seats allowing quick entry and exit from the aircraft.
This first order, and the follow-on annual options, also call for the provision of an initial aircraft spares package capable of supporting the aircraft for a period of six months (to include fielding, deployment and initial operation in theater); initial ground support equipment (GSE) and special test equipment required for the deployment and bed down of four aircraft, and training of four repair technicians and three pilots per aircraft.
The ID/IQ (indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity) contract includes one base year (2010) and four annual options (2011 to 2014), for a total of 110 helicopters to be upgraded over the five years.
Each annual follow-on batch will include:
• Four S-61T stretched VIP aircraft;
• Four S-61T Cargo aircraft;
• 14 H-3 conversions;
• Spares Lot;
• Mechanic training;
• Pilot training;
• Ground support equipment, and;
• One Field Service Representative for one year.
No price is provided for the follow-on lots, so as to allow each to be negotiated when ordered to include various cost escalation clauses.
Although far less ambitious that what is required by the State Dept., Sea King helicopters operated by Britain’s Ministry of Defence have been substantially upgraded to improve their “hot-and-high” performance before they were deployed to Afghanistan. Before the upgrade, the Sea King Mark 4s of 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons from Yeovilton, in Somerset, were only able to fly at night in the hot temperatures of Iraq. Things improved radically, however, after they were fitted with Carson main rotor blades and AgustaWestland five-bladed tail rotors.
“This upgrade came following a feasibility study into the fitting of a new design of composite main rotor blade,” explained Lt. Cdr. Nick Howard, RN, of UK MoD’s Sea King Integrated Project Team. “They were designed to give more power to Sea Kings operated by Carson Helicopters, [which uses] the helicopters on fire-fighting, logging and construction work, by using advanced airfoil sections, increased twist and a swept tip to produce significant performance gains.”
“These new blades added about 50 knots to cruising speed, which meant the Sea Kings could fly together with the Chinook and Apache as a package, while the 2,000-lb increase in lift will allow useful performance in the hot temperatures, and high altitudes, found in Afghanistan,” the MoD said at the time.
However, it is worth noting that when MoD had to choose between Puma and Sea King for a major refurbishment and life extension program it picked the Puma, considering that the Sea King offered less capability and shorter service life. This makes one wonder what the economics and cost/performance tradeoffs might be of a SA-330 Puma life extension program similar to Britain’s, and how it might fare on a market dominated by very expensive UH-60s, NH-90s and EC725s, which often bring to the basic utility helicopter mission far more capabilities than are actually needed.
In any case, Sikorsky’s S-61T program has no competitors for the time being, and the State Dept. will end up with a fleet of very respectable and capable helicopters. The big question is, of course, what it will do with them once the U.S. finally pulls out of Afghanistan. (Full version of story from May 2010 Rotorcraft Report)