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  • A Happy Helo Team
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:38 AM on Jan 06, 2010

    Boeing's helicopter team was in an upbeat mood at a Tuesday briefing in advance of the AUSA's Army Aviation symposium in Crystal City. A few news highlights:

    The A160T high-performance unmanned helicopter is attracting enough interest to justify company investment. This is a change from last year, when it started to look as if the radical aircraft, with its two-speed fully rigid rotor system, was one of those things that nobody quite wanted enough to pay for. But the company quietly decided last summer to buy long-lead parts for five more air vehicles, is about to do the same for 16 more, and is investing in production space in Mesa, Arizona. Engineering will stay in Irvine and flight testing at Victorville, both in California.

    As program manager Ernie Wattam puts it, "the secret is out. We have ten vehicles and everyone wants one" for test programs. Three aircraft fitted with the DARPA-sponsored Forester foliage-penetrating radar will deploy to "Country 1" in South America this year.

    In February, an A160T will go to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah to demonstrate "autonomous precision cargo resupply". The UAV will hover autonomously while troops attach a sling load and carry it to an initial point in sight of the target unit, who can then use a notebook-computer-based control unit to designate an exact delivery point.

    Several countries have formally shown interest in the AH-6I light attack and reconnaissance helicopter, which will be on show next month at the Singapore air show. A second prototype is complete, with the uprated engine and new rotor blades planned for production, and Boeing promises delivery within 21 months of a contract.

    The key to the AH-6I is that it has the sensors, displays, communications links and weapons for an armed reconnaissance mission now fit on a small platform. The idea is a system that can find and engage small targets while staying outside the range of the adversary's weapons and at a distance where detection is unlikely. Interestingly, Boeing says that it has tested three different .50-cal weapons on the aircraft - more accurate than a 7.62-mm Minigun, with less collateral damage and longer range. I'd expect laser-guided 70 mm rockets to be a key weapon for aircraft in this class.

    On the big end of the product line, Boeing is in the process of doubling the production rate on the Chinook. The company delivered 34 new or rebuilt aircraft in 2009, will hand over 46 this year, and by 2013 will be able to build six aircraft per month. This will meet the needs of US and international customers - one example being the UK, which just announced a plan to acquire 22 more Wokkas.

    Still active - but on the more distant horizon - is a plan for a new and bigger tandem-rotor helo. France and Germany have a strong interest in developing such an aircraft, capable of carrying large combat vehicles internally, with a C-130-sized cabin, and have indicated an interest in a co-development program. Boeing's 80,000-pound design is being offered as an alternative to a heavily modified Sikorsky CH-53K.

    Company executives, however, don't expect the project to move forward except as a transatlantic effort - which won't happen until the US figures out its theater-lift problem. This is a standoff between the Army and Navy, pushing for vertical lift, and the USAF, which sees that as unaffordable. A helicopter for the Army and Navy would emerge if the services' requirements are deemed incompatible.

    Tags: ar99, boeing, helicopters

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