Bell has handed over the first Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior under the “A2D” conversion program to the U.S. Army. The helicopter, which joined the 1-6 Air Cavalry Squadron in Fort Riley, Kan., represents the first to receive a conversion from the existing OH-58A model to the rebuilt “D” variant under the wartime replacement aircraft (WRA) program, which seeks to replenish the Army’s Kiowa Warrior fleet lost to attrition.
According to Lt. Col. Matthew Hannah, Kiowa Warrior product manager, the Army “fell below our required Kiowa Warrior strength of 386 [helicopters] in 2004.” Combat losses during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq accounted for most of the fleet reduction. At the moment, the Army is 42 helicopters short of the required 368 airframes, with another seven Kiowas “pending attrition,” Hannah said. “We have to do analysis determining the best course of action to replace those,” he added.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Aaron Posey test flew the OH-58D for Fort Riley and reported that the helicopter was “very, very smooth,” adding that he thought it was in “the top five percent, if not the smoothest aircraft I’ve ever flown.”
Lt. Col. Paul Cravey, commander of the 1-6 Air Cavalry Squadron, is one the units that is feeling the pinch from the Kiowa shortage, as he is currently at “two-thirds of authorized strength.” The Air Cavalry Squadron returned from Iraq in March 2011, leaving part of its fleet behind for the unit that replaced them. This new addition brings Cravey’s fleet up to 20 helicopters, still short of the full complement of 30 helicopters needed for Fort Riley, despite Cravey having the aircrew and staff to support 30.
Pilots from the 1-6 Air Cavalry Squadron in Fort Riley,
Kan. prepare to take the first A2D Kiowa Warrior on an
acceptance test flight. Photos by Sofia Bledsoe
Cravey related that during a recent aerial gunnery training exercise, Fort Riley only had nine available Kiowas to train 39 aircrews within three weeks. “It was tough to turn everybody through in the amount of range time that we available to actually go out and do the live-fire gunnery,” Cravey said. “That is some extreme strain on my maintenance crew to be able to launch and recover those aircraft.”
With these types of shortages in mind, the WRA is working toward filling the Kiowa gap. “Currently we are planning on 23 ‘A2D’ conversions to replace the WRAs and … 26 ‘new metal’ WRA for a total of 49 aircraft,” Hannah said.
The A2D program is a four-step operation that starts with an OH-58A getting “depopulated,” or stripped down at the Aviation Forward Maintenance Activity (AFMA) in San Angelo, Texas. From there, the stripped-down airframe is sent to the Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD) for structural repairs. Once the repairs are completed, the cabin is then ready for production at Bell Helicopter’s Military Aircraft Assembly Center in Amarillo, Texas. There the A becomes a D and is given a “fully stuffed cabin,” Hannah explained, including a wire harness, instrument panels, flight controls and other components.
CW3 Aaron Posey (right), checks out the upgrades on the OH-58D with
squadron commander Lt. Col. Paul Cravey.
In the final step, the newly minted “D” model is sent back to CCAD for final assembly, painting and test flights. Even with the upgrades, “approximately half of the airframe is still a 40-year old airframe,” Hannah said.
The WRA program also features a “new metal” option, which eliminates the first two steps involved in the A2D operation. Bell dispatches a new metal airframe to CCAD for the final assembly production requirements. The timeframe for both processes is currently 12-18 months at a cost of approximately $10 million per aircraft, said Hannah. “Depending on Congressional funding, the WRA expects to produce one helicopter per month,” he added, with final funding coming in FY15 to complete the 49 airframes.
“I believe this is really the path forward in how we lower the cost of Army Aviation and at the same time make sure we take care of the taxpayers but primarily the solider,” noted Col. Christopher B. Carlile, commander of the CCAD.
The Army looked at other options to fill the shortage, included taking nine “B” variants out of Fort Eustis in Virginia and converting those into flying D models. “We have no more training assets that we could use to put into the fleet,” Hannah remarked.
The refurbished OH-58Ds that come off the production line are “very similar” to the Army’s current D fleet. Cravey noted that the A2D Kiowas are “tricked out” and do not “need another touch” when they are delivered. This is a difference since current OH-58Ds that return from combat undergo a process known as a “reset” where the helicopter is “rebuilt from the ground up from everything that’s worn out on the aircraft.” He acknowledges that resets are something that every unit has to work with upon returning from combat. “Anything that gets re-capitalized through wartime replacement and put back out in the fleet will actually help us,” Cravey said.