‘Small’ Fleet  Challenges

By By Pat Host | June 1, 2015

A high operational tempo contributes to HH-60G maintenance challenges.
Photo courtesy of USAF/Airman 1st Class Trevor T. McBride

The U.S. Air Force is confronting a variety of issues that impede its ability to keep its helicopters ready to perform critical missions ranging from combat search and rescue (CSAR) to supporting the American government’s ability to keep working in the face of a national crisis.

Leaders of USAF’s helicopter community gathered in early May to discuss what is being done or should be done to sustain its fleets of Sikorsky Aircraft HH-60G CSAR aircraft, Bell Helicopter UH-1N utility helicopters and Lockheed Martin/Bell TH-1H trainers.


The World Helicopter Summit brought together representatives from the six command organizations that operate USAF helicopters, the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (LCMC) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (which is charged with supporting the helicopters). Also attending were representatives of the various contractors that provide and support USAF’s helicopters.

The gathering was held near Robins AFB in central Georgia, home of the LCMC workforce that provides engineering support for the Air Force’s helicopter fleets. It revived a tradition of an annual “Air Force Helicopter Week” meeting of such representatives to discuss broad and specific maintenance and engineering issues.

That tradition was interrupted after a 2010 scandal involving excessive spending on a four-day Las Vegas conference for employees of the U.S. General Services Administration led Washington to curtail conference attendance by employees throughout the federal government. The last Air Force Helicopter Week was held in 2011 in Stone Mountain, Ga.

The issues discussed at the recent summit stem from several broad causes, according to individuals who have served in the Air Force helicopter community or studied it.

A crew chief performs maintenance on an HH-60G during a phase inspection. Photo courtesy of USAF/Senior Airman Thomas Spangler

First, the Air Force focuses on fixed-wing fleets (fighters, strategic bombers and, to a lesser extent, transports), space operations and nuclear missiles. That means the helicopter community has to fight across the board for resources to sustain its aircraft capabilities.

Second, while the Air Force performs its rotary-wing missions very well and its capabilities are in high demand, it lacks the number of helicopters to meet that demand.

Third, in the case of the HH-60G and UH-1N, sustainment engineering has been curtailed in the past on the expectation that those helicopters would be replaced under programs that eventually were scuttled. These included the Combat Search and Rescue-X (CSAR-X) and Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP). CSAR-X was focused on HH-60G replacements, but CVLSP was intended to cover both those Pave Hawks and the UH-1Ns.

Fourth is operational tempo, particularly of the Pave Hawk, which are often deployed to combat theaters. That means upgrades, modifications and repairs can only be performed in the limited time the helicopters are back at home bases.

An overarching issue is that its three helicopter fleets are relatively small (in the universe of U.S. military rotary-wing aviation)—99 HH-60Gs, 62 UH-1Ns and 28 TH-1Hs. The Air Force must rely on other services for major maintenance and upgrades. Its HH-60Gs and UH-1Ns get major repairs, overhauls and modifications through the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center in Cherry Point, N.C., the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C. (since the Coast Guard operates HH-60Js) and the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas.

The Air Force currently is replacing lost and unserviceable Hueys with UH-1Ns retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which has retired those aircraft in favor of upgraded UH-1Ys. The Marines reportedly are working on a plan to hand over as many as 26 Hueys to the Air Force.

UH-1Ns fly VIPs in Washington and evacuate it in emergencies. Photo courtesy of USAF/Airman 1st Class Ryan J. Sonnier

(The TH-1H’s unique configuration makes it a maintenance and support exception.)

Added to those issues is the fact that USAF helicopters are operated by many commands.

The HH-60G are in the Air Combat Command.

The Global Strike Command, responsible for strategic bomber and land-based nuclear missile operations, is the main operator of the UH-1Ns. Global Strike uses them to transport personnel among nuclear missile sites and protect convoys carrying nuclear warheads.

But only 24 Hueys are assigned to Global Strike. Hueys also are assigned to the Air Force District of Washington, which uses them to transport executive branch and congressional offices and other VIPs (including foreign dignitaries). It also would use them to evacuate top executive branch officials and congressional leaders from Washington in a national emergency—the continuity-of-government mission.

The UH-1Ns also are used overseas (as are HH-60Gs), supporting the operations of the Pacific Air Forces, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and its operations in Africa. Pave Hawks and Hueys also are flown by Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units.

The TH-1Hs are used primarily by the Air Education and Training Command as the Air Force’s primary helicopter trainer. They operate at Fort Rucker, Ala. to ready pilots to advance to the service’s other helicopters and the Bell-Boeing CV-22 tiltrotor.


The TH-1H is an unusual helicopter. As the training command’s UH-1Hs were growing obsolete at the turn of the century, Lockheed Martin won a contract to upgrade them to a new configuration. That company in turn hired US Helicopter, a Bell subsidiary, to produce TH-1Hs.

The TH-1H is essentially zero-timed, refurbished UH-1H with a glass cockpit, UH-1N rotors, transmission, gearboxes, a more aerodynamic nose and an upgraded, T53-L-703 engine de-rated to the N-model’s 1,290 shaft horsepower gearbox limit. That combination led some to dub the TH-1H the “Frankencopter” after the fictional monster stitched together from others’ body parts by Dr. Frankstein.

The TH-1H is not used in any other capacity by any other military service. That makes it difficult to achieve economies of scale and drives up the cost of sustainment.

The Air Force wants to buy new transmissions for the TH-1H. In a March notice, it said it planned to issue Kamatics a multi-year, firm fixed price contract for short-shaft, aluminum alloy assembly transmissions. The Air Force said the modification would provide a service life of 20 years.


A UH-1N flies over Minot AFB, N.D. The Huey’s duties include supporting the Global Strike Command and several other USAF commands and activities, Photo courtesy of USAF/Senior Airman Brittany Y. Bateman

Global Strike operates three UH-1N squadrons. The command’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fields are located in U.S. north, in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. The UH-1N’s primary mission is to provide rapid, flexible, and responsive security force airlift to any location within a missile complex around the clock. The workhorse helicopters also serve as training platforms to ensure combat mission-ready aircrews, integrated aircrew and security forces tactics, techniques, and procedures. They transport support missile crews and missile maintenance personnel, and fly SAR missions.

The Air Force’s biggest problem with the UH-1N is that it doesn’t meet mission requirements for range, speed, all-weather performance and carrying capacity. Also, some of its components are obsolete and no longer supported by industry. (The Marines’ retirement of its UH-1N, the last of which left the fleet in December, means the Air Force losing engine sustainment capability.

Global Strike’s departing commander, USAF Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, told a Senate panel April 22 that the service plans to fly UH-1Ns into the mid-2020s, despite the fact that they are more than 45 years old. “We must sustain the helicopter’s current capabilities while selectively upgrading the platform to address the most critical safety and operational concerns,” Wilson said. To support that, he said, safety improvements are underway, including procurement of crashworthy aircrew seats across the fleet and the full integration of night vision goggle-compatible cockpits by 2016.

In addition, the Hueys are getting helicopter terrain avoidance and warning system (HTAWS) and traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) to improve situational awareness and survivability.

Pave Hawks

The HH-60G’s primary mission is CSAR. It is used to conduct day or night personnel recovery operations into hostile environments. It also performs supplemental missions like NASA space flight support, civil SAR and rescue command and control, among others. Of the 99 HH-60Gs, 69 are in the active service, 17 fly in the Guard and 15 are in the Reserves.

The Pave Hawk fleet suffered from the fact the Air Force has continued to add equipment and upgrades, which has increased the weight of an aircraft that would begin retiring shortly under the procurements that were cancelled. The added weigh, combined with the HH-60G’s operational tempo, strains the helicopter’s powerplant and airframe. That increases the maintenance and engineering burden.

The Air Force in June 2014 awarded Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin a $1.3 billion contract to produce 112 HH-60Ws under the Combat Rescue Helicopter program. The Sikorsky-Lockheed team was the only bidder. That contract just includes funding for the first four aircraft. The Air Force said it could be worth as much as $7.9 billion.

A USAF Plan For the UH-1N?

Air Force officials expect to announce soon a timeline and strategy to replace its UH-1Ns.

A replacement is critical, USAF Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, outgoing head of the U.S. Global Strike Command, told a Senate committee April 22.

“While we can, to some extent, mitigate the UH-1N’s deficiencies in range, speed, and payload,” Wilson said, “no amount of modification will close these critical capability gaps entirely.”

President Obama’s defense budget submission for fiscal 2016 includes $2 billion for a UH-1N Replacement Program.

The replacement aircraft also would serve the vertical-lift support requirements of the Air Force District of Washington, Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Education and Training Command.


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