A CH-47F Chinook helicopter with 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade maneuvers to pick up an M119A3 howitzer during sling load operations on Fort Bragg, N.C., May 4. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
India’s first Ch-47F made its maiden flight July 23 from the Boeing flight line July 23 outside the factory where it builds the tandem-rotor heavylift aircraft for the U.S. Army and 19 other nations.
Flying under an FAA experimental ticket and designated the first CH-47F(I), the helicopter is the first of 15 on contract under a direct commercial sale to India. The experimental ticket is a unique requirement of DCS aircraft and is indicated by the word “Experimental” stenciled over the aft door and an “N” appended to the tail number. Both will be painted over when the Chinook is delivered to India.
Boeing in 2015 signed a $3 billion contract sell India 22 AH-64 Apache gunships and 15 Chinooks after at least six years of courting the nation’s defense ministry. When the aircraft that flew Monday is delivered, India will become the 19th country operating Chinooks.
The 20th, Saudi Arabia, is cleared by the State Department to buy 48 CH-47Fs but is on contract for eight with orders expected to increase, according to Randy Rotte, Boeing’s director of sales and marketing for cargo helicopters.
All 15 of India’s Chinooks, which have the modern F-model configuration, are in some stage of assembly at Boeing’s plant here. Because the aircraft are country-specific, they progress down a secondary production line where the company also builds the special operations MH-47G and other special-order aircraft. R&WI saw several of them under construction during a media tour of Boeing's production line July 23.
That line is parallel to the nine-position primary line, which progresses in the opposite direction, where CH-47F Block I aircraft are made. A three-position, nine-stage line tucked at the end of the primary line is where the Army’s three engineering and manufacturing development CH-47F Block II aircraft are being built.
Under the recent multi-year contract Boeing won from the Army, the company could add more aircraft orders and more international customers. The $181 million officially covers only six CH-47F Block I aircraft for the U.S. Army, but comes with options for 150 more aircraft.
That works out to a production of up to 30 aircraft a year for five years. Boeing is building much fewer than that now, but its factory is sized for a rate of about 70 per month, said H-47 Program Manager Chuck Dabundo. At the height of production during the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Boeing built 59 per year.
That contract is meant to bridge the gap, and keep the H-47 line humming, until Block II upgrades enter production. Three engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft are under construction that will test out the performance enhancing attributes of the Block II upgrades, which include machined airframes and advanced composite rotor blades that add at least 1,600 pounds of lift capacity.
“It’s called the Final Block I contract, so if you want Block Is, this is the time to come in and get them,” Rotte said.
For the last 10 years, Boeing and the Defense Department were able to add a few dozen Chinook orders to the tail end of large U.S. buys as the Army baselines its fleet at F-model configuration. But plenty of existing foreign operators and potential newcomers still are interested in Block I Chinooks. The new contract leaves plenty of room for those customers to get the helicopters they want before Boeing shifts to production of Block II sometime around 2025, Rotte said.
“It’s basically an [indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity] contract, which is really, really unusual for helicopters,” Rotte said. “As you might expect, it’s difficult to propose pricing when you’re looking at 156 aircraft, of only which six are firm orders. It was easier in the last multiyear when it was 155 firm and 60 options.”
The company is marketing F-model Chinooks to current operators of earlier models and to new customers like Germany, Dabundo said.
Chinook is up against Sikorsky’s CH-53K King Stallion to replace the German fleet of legacy CH-53G aircraft. Germany plans to spend more than $4 billion for 40 to 60 helicopters sometime in mid-2020.