There lived a happy coelacanthIn dim primordial seasHe ate and mated, hunted, sleptCompletely at his easeDame Nature urged: "Evolve!"He said: "Excuse me, Ma'am,You get on making Darwin. I'm staying as I am."
- Horace Shipp, The Coelacanth
The final day of Boeing's media tour last week started early Friday morning in the Arizona desert, a few miles from the Mesa plant, where we saw an energetic low-level display by an Army Apache and Boeing's AH-6i demonstrator.
From a tactical viewpoint, it was worth remembering that either could have shot us from so far away that we would never have seen or heard them - the relative size of the L-3 Wescam MX-15D turret on the little AH-6i shows that Boeing is serious in that regard. However, close air support does mean close, and the AH-6i showed off the agility that allows it to dispense with a turret. The helicopter's forward-firing weapon sight is a spot marked on the windshield. Mind you, with two 7.62 mm Miniguns firing 100 rounds per second between them, that is probably more than adequate.
Both helicopters are headed for milestones: Delivery of the first AH-64D Block III to the U.S. Army in October and, Boeing predicts, 50 orders for the AH-6i by year-end. (Saudi Arabia alone has asked the U.S. government for 36 aircraft.)
However, it did occur to me that in the course of the week we'd seen a lot of aircraft with designs that go back to ancient history, and even before a very young and inexperienced sub-editor from Basingstoke joined the staff of Flight.
The Advanced Attack Helicopter program that led to Apache kicked off in August 1972. The AH-6i is an evolutionary descendant of the Vietnam-era OH-6. The P-8A Poseidon is a 737, also from the 1960s. In St. Louis, we looked at the F-15SE - contract award for F-15 full-scale development was in December 1969 - and the demonstration mock-up of the "international roadmap" Super Hornet, rooted in Lee Begin's late-1960s Northrop P-530 Cobra design.
Both fighter programs are healthy. Barring unexpected catastrophe, Saudi Arabia is about to order another batch of F-15s (plus major renovations of current aircraft) and the F-15SE is a strong candidate in Korea. As for the Super Hornet: Boeing Military Airplanes President Chris Chadwick predicted that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, its intended successor in U.S. Navy procurement plans, would become a "niche airplane due to its high costs."
Put it this way: when Boeing lost the JSF competition in late 2001, most of us didn't expect to see both the Eagle and Super Hornet still pulling in new business 10 years down the road.
We'd started the week in Philadelphia with the grandma helo of them all, the CH-47 Chinook, flown in September 1961. Far from settling into retirement, the CH-47 is headed for a six-per-month production rate in a renovated factory.
Not that we didn't talk about newer platforms - but the only two being built in large numbers are the C-17 and V-22. Boeing now does not expect any V-22s to be sold for export, so the only hope for future sales is a carrier onboard delivery fleet for the U.S. Navy, and even that - a Boeing executive acknowledges - could be elbowed out by another run down the production line for the 1960s C-2 Greyhound.
The C-17 has done well but Boeing will have its work cut out sustaining production. So far, no export customer has ordered the aircraft in double figures, but Boeing needs 10 aircraft orders per year to keep the line open, and the Pentagon says that it has all the C-17s it wants.
Boeing has a growing UAV business - the media group saw the second and subsequent aircraft in the A160T Hummingbird pilot production batch on the line at Mesa, Ariz., the first already having been shipped to Victorville in California for flight testing - but so far the financial numbers are small compared with the rest of the company. Indicator: even the quite specialized A160T, over the next few years, is expected to pull in as much revenue as the ubiquitous ScanEagle does today.
Neither can the company be counted out for the next generation. Significantly, Chadwick says that Boeing is not (immediately nor necessarily) going to seek to team on the Next Generation Bomber, as it did with Lockheed last time around. The reason: investments and accomplishments in the past few years have changed Boeing's position.
But it is older platforms - updated with modern technology like the AH-6i sensor ball, which has performance and capabilities that you could barely have dreamed of a decade ago - look like they will carry Boeing for a long time to come. It's an interesting perspective, to say the least, on the status of technological development in aerospace.