Army's old Huey choppers getting a new lease on life.
Schoomaker commissioned the study as a "holistic review of Army aviation and its role on the joint battlefield." A key focus of the study--whose findings were due in February--was expected to be the future of the much-delayed RAH-66 Comanche helicopter. A Boeing-Sikorsky team is developing the Comanche to replace the AH-1 Cobra, OH-58 Kiowa and OH-6 Cayuse helicopters fur armed reconnaissance and light attack missions.
The Army has been tight-lipped about the review, but industry insiders indicate that one of the study's findings is likely to be that the service should keep some of the 421 Hueys that it still has in its fleet--at least for a few more years.
"The Army currently has a need for 300-plus UH-1s," said one source, who asked not to be identified.
The Army continues to use Hueys to fly training missions at Fort Rucker, Ala.; transport Pentagon officials in and around metropolitan Washington, D.C., and conduct multi-national observer operations in Egypt's Sinai Desert.
In fact, in January, when an Egyptian charter airliner carrying French tourists crashed into the Red Sea, a U.S. Army Huey quickly hopped to the scene, just a few miles from its base, to offer aid. Unfortunately, all 148 people on the airliner already had died in the crash.
In its heyday, during the Vietnam War, the Huey was the Army's workhorse helicopter. It was used for assault missions, transporting troops and supplies, and evacuating casualties.
Hueys can carry a dozen troops or an equivalent amount of cargo at speeds up to 127 mph, with a range of nearly 300 miles. They can be armed with a variety of weapons, including M-60 machine guns, 20 mm cannon, 2.75-inch rocket launchers and M11 guided-missile launchers.
Medical-evacuation versions can carry up to six stretchers, plus a medic. In Vietnam, medical evacuations allowed more than 90 percent of wounded soldiers who reached medical facilities to survive, said Scott Fitzgerald, director of worldwide sales and marketing for the Huey, at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas.
The last Huey was manufactured in 1977. As the Huey aged, maintenance costs and safety problems increased. In 1998, the Army temporarily grounded its entire fleet, citing gear failures in the aircraft's T53-L-13 engine. The service implemented a program to overhaul those engines in order to enable the Hueys to last until they could be retired and replaced by Sikorsky's UH-60L Black Hawk.
Now, it appears that there aren't enough Black Hawks to fill the void. As a result, one source said, the Army seems ready to postpone retiring at least 50 to 70 of the Hueys until fiscal year 2008 to allow adequate time to procure a commercial, off-the-shelf helicopter to perform many of the missions now performed by the UH-1.
The Army is serious about "taking a look at another airframe," said Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army deputy chief of staff G-3. The shortage of Black Hawks is becoming a bigger problem as operations continue in Iraq. For example, the 101st Airborne Division alone is 45 Black Hawks short, said Cody during a presentation to the Association of the U.S. Army.
If the Army buys a new light utility helicopter, it would be deployed at echelons above division and corps, and also within the National Guard. "We have asked the task force to look at what type of aviation general support platform we can put into the Guard that meets homeland defense missions and meets war fighter requirements for echelons above division and corps," Cody said.
The "most cost-effective" replacement for the Huey, Fitzgerald argues, is the Bell 210. "The Bell 210 is the civilian version of the Huey," he noted. "They are virtually identical."
The 210 is built with the airframe of a retired UH-1 Huey, but other than that, it is an entirely new aircraft, Fitzgerald said. "We don't use overhauled or refurbished parts. They're all new."
With an Army-provided airframe and approximately $3 million, the service will get a virtually new aircraft in the 210, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for the next 20 years, Fitzgerald said. The 210 comes with a full new-aircraft warranty.
Operating and service costs will be 42 percent or less of those for today's Huey, and flight hour costs will be $535, compared to $835 per flight hour for today's Huey or $2,199 per flight hour for a Black Hawk. The 210's common flight characteristics with the Huey make it "a natural fit" for those organizations who continue to fly the Huey, Fitzgerald said.
Bell isn't the only manufacturer interested in the project. MD Helicopters Inc., based in Mesa, Ariz., is proposing a variant of its MD Explorer, a light, twin-engine civilian aircraft, to replace Army National Guard's Huey, Cobra and Kiowa, according to Alan Neugebauer, MDHI's manager for U.S. government sales. The Explorer can perform the same missions as all three, and it is relatively inexpensive, he said. "The question is can you afford to buy a Black Hawk, when you can get six Explorers for the same money?"
If the Army does decide to upgrade some of its Hueys, it will be following in the footsteps of the Marine Corps, which has embarked upon its own plan to remanufacture 180 of its AH-1W Super Cobras and 100 of its UH-1N Hueys.
In October, the Marines and their contractor, Bell Helicopter, received approval from the Defense Acquisition Board to begin the multibillion-dollar effort, known as the H-1 Upgrade Program. The decision dears the way for Bell, during fiscal year 2004, to remanufacture six UH-1Ns and three AH-1Ws. Second lot of the same size is scheduled to enter production in 2005.
The upgrades for both aircraft will include identical engines, rotor systems, drive trains, hydraulics and electrical distribution systems. The use of common systems will reduce both logistical support costs and shipboard storage requirements dramatically, according to Bell spokesman Bob Leder.
The upgrades can't come too fast for the Marines' aging Huey fleet. In January, four Leathernecks were killed when their UH-1 crashed in the rugged Talega Canyon area of Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Many of the more than 10,000 Hueys that were produced over the decades, however, are still flying. Thousands have been sold to more than 45 U.S. allies or transferred to other federal, state or local agencies for homeland-security, law-enforcement or emergency-response duties. Restoring and upgrading those rotorcraft has become an important line of work for Bell and other contractors. "We realized, in the 1990s, that the Huey was going to have a future life in a modified form," said Fitzgerald.
Bell began working with the Army to design an upgrade program to eliminate the aircraft's safety problems and improve performance. The result was a predecessor to the Bell 210, the Huey II, Fitzgerald said. "What you got was a Huey on steroids." He cites these changes:
The engine has been replaced with the T53-L-703--the same one that propels the Cobra. The new engine provides 28 percent more takeoff power and lifts 642 pounds of additional payload with essentially the same fuel consumption as the current UH-1H, Fitzgerald said.
The Huey II's hover ceiling is increased 39 percent on a standard day, and 275 percent on a hot day, enabling it to work at higher altitudes, more distant from enemy ground fire, he said.
Also, Fitzgerald explained, the Huey II's transmission is more durable than the original. The UH-1's transmission has to be overhauled every two or three years. The Huey II's transmission won't need an overhaul for 20 years, he said.
The Huey II is a kit of new, upgraded components which can be incorporated into an existing UH-1H airframe in about 12 weeks, Fitzgerald said. The aircraft is dismantled, transmission and engine rebuilt, new parts installed, and the Huey II emerges to take its place in the operational fleet.
Thus far, Fitzgerald said, 111 kits have been sold, and 28 more are on order. If they choose, most operators currently flying the UH-1H can perform the modernization in their own facilities, he said. The kit also can be installed by Bell-authorized facilities.
Perhaps the largest Huey refurbishment facility is US Helicopter Inc., which is located in Ozark, Ala., just outside of Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation. "We pretty much specialize in the UH-1," said Dick Joyce, the company's president and chief executive officer.
US Helicopter has eight buildings on six acres of land. A 60,000 square-foot primary maintenance hanger can accommodate a production flow of up to 42 helicopters at a time, Joyce said.
US Helicopter installs Huey II kits on existing UH-1 frames, and it upgrades UH-1s for customers who opt not to buy the kits. Customers can choose from a wide variety of optional add-ons, such as armor decking, upgraded avionics, cargo hooks, rescue hoists, fire-fighting buckets, extended-range fuel tanks and floats.
In all, over the past decade, the firm has upgraded 460 helicopters for the Army; National Guard; federal, state and local agencies, and 19 foreign countries. The leading foreign customer has been Colombia, which at last count had acquired 82 Hueys for use in its long campaign against drug smugglers and rebels. Other Hueys have gone to such countries as Jordan, Greece and Thailand.
"Five Huey IIs currently are flying in Pakistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom," Fitzgerald said. When President Bush visited the Philippines in October, he promised to provide that country with 20 refurbished Hueys.
The Huey is popular in the international market for used helicopters, Fitzgerald said. A competitor is the Russian-built Mi-17 Hip multi-mission helicopter. "The problem with it is long-term support," he said.
The Huey "fits a nice niche," said Joyce. "It's a medium-size helicopter. There's nothing else in that category. The airframes have a lot of life left in them. They can be kept in service for a long time."
On the domestic front, Fitzgerald predicted a growing market for upgraded Hueys. In 2001, he noted, New York State Police Department purchased three Huey II kits. The Department of Homeland security's new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, created in 2003, already has acquired and deployed additional Hueys.
Since 9/11, a lot of the new homeland security agencies have received funding for new helicopters, such as Black Hawks, Fitzgerald said. "But in time, funding will become harder for those agencies to find, and they will be more interested in the Huey," he said. "We know that."
Other companies are interested in rebuilding Hueys. Uniflight Inc., of Grand Prairie, Texas, has bid on four Huey II jobs and is waiting to hear whether it will get the contracts, according to Greg Aslinger, president and chief executive officer. "It's typical in dealing with third-world countries," he said. "Funding is an issue. How do you get paid?"
Still, he said, "I think the Huey II is an exciting program. There's nothing else like it. For $2 million, you basically get a new helicopter."
Sandra I. Erwin contributed to this article.