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Helicopter overhaul: Army's war-weary choppers get repairs.

To tackle a growing backlog of damaged and worn-out helicopters, the U.S. Army's aviation depots and contractors are operating at full tilt.

By early December, at least 464 helicopters back from Iraq and Afghanistan had been returned to combat-ready status, in a process the Army calls "reset." More than 500 additional aircraft are awaiting repairs.

The aviation reset project is now estimated to cost $1.2 billion and requires a worldwide effort by the reset program office within the Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM).

"Our job is not to zero-time these aircraft as a depot would do, but to put them back in mission-capable status in the hands of the soldier," said program manager Col. Ray Woolery.

Army helicopters were used heavily in the initial combat stages of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Brig. Gen. E.J. Sinclair, commander of the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., pointed out that AH-64 Apaches, in the major combat phase of Iraqi Freedom, decimated three divisions of Iraqi armor, while UH-60 Black Hawks flew air assaults. In Afghanistan, CH-47 Chinooks inserted special operations teams at mountain elevations up to 16,000 feet.

Ongoing stabilization operations in both theaters require aviation units sustain high operational tempos. Individual OH-58D Kiowa Warriors of the 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment have flown approximately 102 hours a month in Iraq. As of mid-October, the 21 Apaches deployed in Afghanistan each were averaging 54 flight hours a month which is more than double typical peacetime use.

Battle damage and harsh environments have taken their toll on the helicopter fleet. Most Apaches that were shot up in the much-publicized strike on Karbala in Iraq returned to the fight after field repairs. Maintainers in Iraqi Freedom removed 35 pounds of sand from under a radio console in one Black Hawk. Rotor blades in the desert commonly suffer significant sand erosion. Abrasive sand also clouds windshields, and grains caked between panels by field washing ultimately cause corrosion.

CH-47D Chinook cargo helicopters, especially, are showing signs of age-induced wear. "We have found a number of our aircraft that had significant sheet-metal requirements caused by high altitude, high gross-weight flights," observed Woolery.

Army ground and aviation equipment returning from combat rotations goes through reset for repeat deployments. The AMCOM reset office became operational in April 2003. By early December, contractors and Army personnel had reset helicopters from both Iraq and Afghanistan at 14 government facilities and one contractor site. At that time, AMCOM had 225 aircraft in process. Woolery explained, "What we're trying to achieve is to bring these back to pre-deployment condition."

Some reset work is done by the aviation units themselves upon return to their home bases. Commercial contracts are modeled on those used by the Air Force to hire contractor field teams.

Workers from L3, Lear Siegler, DynCorp and DS2, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and the Day & Zimmermann Group, perform reset work at sites near deploying units, including Forts Hood, Drum, Knox, Polk, Campbell and Bragg in the continental United States. DynCorp, for example, works on AH-64s and OH-58Ds in Temple, Texas, near Fort Hood.

Additional reset sites have been added in Hawaii and Germany to refurbish aircraft from the Hawaii Army National Guard and U.S. Army Europe. "Any helicopter that says U.S. Army on the side is getting the same treatment, whether it be Guard, Reserve or active-duty component," said Woolery.

The contractor teams must follow AMCOM technical manuals. Cost estimates are adjusted, once aircraft are torn down. Aircraft marked for reset are analyzed first by the owning unit in-theater, then again when torn down at the worksite.

Most estimates have been revised downward, as of late. "The initial aircraft that fought the war and came out took a lot more work," acknowledged Woolery. Stabilization operations are more likely flown from concrete hardstands than open desert, and give units more time to do maintenance. "We expect the next lot to be in better shape. They have not had the [same] threat of air defenses and small arms as the guys in the shooting part of the war," he noted.

Most tasks are like those done by Army aviation unit and intermediate maintenance facilities. The duration of the work varies from one aircraft to another, but average time is 69 days for the UH-60L, 74 days for the AH-64D and 122 days for the CH-47D. Corpus Christi Army Aviation Depot still repairs aircraft with major crash or battle damage, but it also fields depot teams to supervise more involved repairs at reset sites.

AMCOM expects Boeing to reset more than 40 Apaches at its Williams Gateway facility, southeast of the main Apache manufacturing and modernization plant in Mesa, Ariz. Boeing has about 75 people committed to reset work at the two facilities. The Williams Gateway site has long been used for maintenance and modification of Army Apaches in addition to repairs on Air Force T-38s and Navy F-18s. The first of 10 AH-64As and five AH-64Ds covered by a firm fixed-price contract was returned to the Army on Sept. 20.

With Apaches flying in at two- to three-week intervals, deliveries under the initial contract will continue through July 2005. "These aircraft are flying in because the guys in the field are doing a fantastic job maintaining them," noted John Guasto, Boeing Apache reset program manager. "For what these things have been through, they're in great condition."

The first AH-64A to be reset was a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. It arrived with five or six bullet holes in the airframe and one in the front cockpit canopy. Like most of the aircraft to follow, the first Apache in reset suffered from sand intrusion.

"It had seen a lot of action, a lot of hard use," said Dan Anglim, Boeing director and general manager of aerospace support, in Mesa. None of the Apaches returned to Mesa so far has been shot up so badly that it warranted disassembly in manufacturing fixtures. Though most of the returning aircraft have suffered erosion damage on main and tail rotors, particularly around the rotor blade tip caps, sand-related corrosion has been minor. "While they need some work, they're not basket cases," explained Anglim.

The Apache reset process is divided into three 20-day "cells." Workers remove all access panels to wash away trapped sand. "We do a massive cleaning," said Guasto. "We take the aircraft to the wash rack two to three times in the first 20 days just to get all the sand off."

The next 20 days are dedicated to a thorough inspection and repairs in accordance with the standard Apache 500-hour, phase-four inspection. "We repair everything possible to the Army technical manuals," explained Guasto. "If it's possible to repair it, we repair it."

Boeing workers remove the main and tail rotors and all drive components including the transmissions and driveshafts. They replace components with less than 250 hours life remaining, and install new bearings and seals. Detailed inspection often uncovers additional damage. Temporary field repairs are removed and structures restored. "We bring the aircraft as close to pre-deployment condition as possible," said Guasto.

Reset also provides an opportunity to incorporate engineering changes authorized after the aircraft was built. For example, Apache tail booms are strengthened and vertical stabilizer mounts are changed. "The aircraft when it leaves is definitely in better condition than when it was deployed," Guasto mentioned.

"We like to give them a clean log book without discrepancies," he said. The first reset AH-64A went to the Texas National Guard. The 10 AH-64As covered by the first reset contract will remain part of the Apache "legacy" fleet in the National Guard and are not scheduled for AH-64D remanufacture. A-model Apaches earmarked for D-model modernization will not go through the complete reset. However, the Apache program manager will receive funds to pay Boeing for repairs over and above the standard AH-64D conversion.
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Article Details
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Author:Colucci, Frank
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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