Military, Products, Public Service

Rotary-Wing Blue

By Frank Colucci | April 1, 2006
Send Feedback

Low density and high demand require the Air Force to replace its vertical-lift fleet with new platforms.

Like the other U.S. Armed Services, the Air Force is wearing out helicopters in the Global War On Terror and non-combat emergencies.

The Air Force Special Operations Command has written off a half-dozen MH-53M Pave Low helicopters since September 11th. Mission capable rates for the aging HH-60G Pave Hawks are reported at just 62 percent. The UH-1N operates largely unchanged after 35 years.


The Air Force has programs under way to replace all its rotary-wing assets with the CV-22 tilt rotor, a new CSAR-X combat search-and-rescue helicopter, and a Common Vertical Lift Support Platform. Those new aircraft will provide greater capability than today's helicopters. They nevertheless have to sustain funding despite congressional concerns about federal deficit and competition from faster, higher-flying weapons systems.

The Fiscal 2007 defense budget request includes $411.8 million to buy two production CV-22s and prepare for the fleet of special-operations Ospreys. It also would provide $254 million for three CSAR-X test aircraft. The Air Force now wants to spend $849 million from Fiscal 2007 to 2011 to accelerate development of the objective CSAR-X aircraft--this despite congressional warnings that an overly ambitious development plan could be too expensive. The Air Force is still studying a common platform to carry missile-site crews and VIPs. How fast the rotary-wing fleet will be replaced is subject to congressional intervention, but the current fleet leaves few if any alternatives.


The Air Force declares combat rescue one of its "core competencies" and now has just over 100 Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks in active duty, Reserve, and Air National Guard rescue squadrons. About two-thirds of them are in the active component, but Guard and Reserve aviators deploy with the same aircraft to fly the same mission in combat theaters.

The primary wartime mission of the Pave Hawk is to penetrate hostile airspace day or night to recover downed aircrew or other isolated personnel.

Significantly, the Air Force HH-60G also flies civil search and rescue, medevac, counter-drug, space shuttle support, and disaster-relief missions. Peacetime Pave Hawk utilization around 300 hours a year surges with crises, and high utilization near maximum gross weight causes airframe cracks and corrosion and dynamic component wear. The oldest HH-60Gs are past their 7,000-hr. design life.

Deployable and versatile as the Pave Hawk has been, the HH-60G crammed full of fuel, rescue equipment, and pararescue jumpers has neither the cabin volume nor the lift performance to medevac multiple casualties in today's full-spectrum military operations. The HH-60G without tanker support is short of range for many rescue scenarios.

Based on a 1999 mission-need statement, an approved analysis of alternatives in June 2001 recommended a medium-lift helicopter to replace the Pave Hawk. The analysis was broadened to include the CV-22, but Bell/Boeing withdrew the tilt-rotor as too expensive to win the original program.

The Air Force now wants 141 CSAR-X helicopters (originally called personnel recovery vehicles, or PRVs) with about twice the range of the Pave Hawk, more working space, and a fully integrated, network-centric mission system. The service also wants a highly available aircraft readily deployed by C-5 and C-17 jet transports. Proposals were submitted in late 2005, and the Air Material Command plans to award a contract in late 2007 to achieve initial operational capability with a Block 0 aircraft by mid-2012. Block 10 with better performance and more advanced systems was expected by Fiscal 2018. The Pentagon's future-year defense plan now intends to bring Block 10 forward. The Air Force figures the entire CSAR-X program is worth around $12 billion.

The Boeing MH-47G, AgustaWestland EH-101, and Sikorsky S-92 flew at Nellis AFB, Nev. last year to introduce Air Force pilots to the CSAR-X contenders. Boeing Rotorcraft Systems is proposing a new-build Chinook adapted from the Army special-operations MH-47G already in service. Leveraging its Team US101 win in the U.S. presidential competition, Lockheed Martin Systems Integration again intends to put mission systems on a version of the EH-101 assembled by Bell Helicopter. Sikorsky has teamed with Boeing Air Force Systems and Rockwell Collins to integrate a network-centric mission system on the military H-92 designed for Canada.

Common Vertical-Lift Platform

A Common Vertical Lift Support Platform to replace the Bell UH-1N was initially part of CSAR-X requirements. The Twin Huey joined the Air Force in 1970, and 62 helicopters today carry VIPs around Washington and security and support personnel around missile sites.

Early on, Air Force studies estimated savings around $600 million by using a common platform for both CSAR and those missions. The Air Force envisioned the common platform as a less complex version of CSAR-X Block 0.

That plan was nevertheless put on hold last year. A dedicated common-platform analysis of alternatives led by the Air Force Space Command should yield a final report next month to provide direction based upon types of aircraft, mixed-fleet options and suggested numbers of aircraft to achieve the needed capability. The number of aircraft and their delivery schedule is to be determined, but common-platform plans initially called for 20 aircraft for Air Mobility Command in the national capitol region and 46 for Space Command and other users.

CV-22 Osprey

Air Force Special Operations Command now flies 25 MH-53M and 11 MH-53J Pave Low 3/4 helicopters for infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of joint forces. Those aircraft are the re-skinned, re-bladed incarnations of the same Sikorsky Super Jolly Green Giants first sent to Southeast Asia in 1967.

Pave Low helicopters now equip two special-ops squadrons and a training unit. They have been at the forefront of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, but the small fleet has suffered attrition. One Pave Low crashed-landed in the thin mountain air of Afghanistan and had to be destroyed once the crew was rescued. Another landed safely in Iraq after a rocket-propelled grenade hit but was likewise destroyed. Others have been lost in tragic accidents, and the survivors remain the most expensive A.F. Special Operations Command aircraft to operate.

The Air Force now plans to retire the last MH-53M in 2012 as it fields 50 Bell/Boeing CV-22s for four operational squadrons and a training unit. Three test aircraft were converted from Marine MV-22s for development work at Edwards AFB, Calif. The first production-representative CV-22 went to Kirtland AFB, N.M. to get A.F. Special Operations Command crews ready for an operational utility evaluation this June. A good evaluation will start formal crew training in the autumn and lead to initial operational test and evaluation in October 2007. Initial operational capability is scheduled for Fiscal 2009 with six Ospreys, 1.5 trained crews per aircraft, and support assets for the special-ops mission. CV-22 deliveries would run through Fiscal 2017.

With a typical load of 12 "operators," the Osprey is supposed to fly 525 nm, hover at a mountainous landing zone, and return with troops still aboard should the mission be aborted. The Pave Low reaches just 130 nm in the same scenario.

Despite its performance advantages, the tilt-rotor seats just 24 troops versus 27 in the MH-53M, and it cannot carry some large internal loads that fit the -53M.

Current Air Force plans allocate six aircraft to the 71st Special Operation Sqdn. schoolhouse in the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland AFB. The 8th and 20th Special Operations Sqdns. in the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. would have 25 primary aircraft plus two spares. A Pacific Command unit to be determined would have eight primary CV-22s and a spare. A European Command base to be determined would get seven primary aircraft plus one spare.


Even with the introduction of the CV-22, CSAR-X, and the common platform, the Air Force will still fly Hueys. The U.S. Army Aviation Training Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama announced in 2003 it would retire its Bell UH-1Hs. To sustain its helicopter training program and provide a bridge to future glass cockpits, the Air Force accepted 40 ex-Army aircraft and ordered 24 of them converted to TH-1H Huey 2 trainers. Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems managed a team including US Helicopter (now a division of Bell), TCS Design and Management Services (now part of L-3 Communications), Systems Research and Applications International, and Astronautics Corp.

The remanufactured aircraft have uprated engines and transmissions, a reinforced tail boom, and a three-screen glass cockpit. A test helicopter was rolled out at Air Education and Training Command headquarters at Randolph AFB, Texas last November and will undergo testing at Fort Rucker until the spring of 2006.

The first production aircraft will be delivered in 2007, and deliveries will continue into 2009. The 23rd Flight Training Squadron at Fort Rucker is expected to use the TH-1Hs until 2025.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox