Warrior Stories

Kiowa scout helicopters are still flying, still fighting

Written by: BOB COX - Star Telegram

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Bell Helicopter Block II Demonstrator

The first time an Army helicopter pilot flew a Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa into harm's way was 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War.

It's been nearly 40 years since the Army last received a brand new OH-58 from Bell's Fort Worth factory. And between the Army and Bell, there are plans to keep them flying and fighting until 2030 -- and perhaps well beyond.

The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, the designation given the aircraft when they were last rebuilt beginning in the mid-1980s, has been the workhorse of Army aviation for the past decade. They've flown more than 750,000 hours, far more hours in a far more rugged environments than anyone ever conceived.

"They have the highest [operational] tempo of any aircraft in the Army and probably any in the military," said Lt. Col. Scott Rauer, who manages the Army fleet.

In their role as the Army's eyes in the sky, troops rely heavily on the Kiowas -- so-called armed scout helicopters -- for reconnaissance, surveillance and even close fire support. The aircraft are equipped with a machine gun and can carry rocket pods.

Re-equipped in the mid-1980s to fight the Russian army in Europe, the Kiowas are now deployed to the hot, dirty and mountainous regions of the Middle East and Asia.

The Army has twice tried and failed to field a replacement for the Kiowa. It spent upward of $7 billion on the Comanche program from 1988 until its cancellation in 2004. It also spent several hundred million more on Bell's ARH-70 armed reconnaissance helicopter from 2005 to 2008, when that, too, was canceled as costs soared beyond estimates.

So the Kiowas keep soldiering on. It's quite a journey for a helicopter that the Army initially rejected in the mid-1960s and Bell redesigned for the commercial market, the highly successful Bell 206 Jet Ranger. When the Army changed its mind, Bell adapted the Jet Ranger to the military mission as the OH-58.

Bell is in the final stages of a 14-year program to upgrade the Kiowa with newer technology and much improved cockpit safety features, including crash-worthy seats and cockpit air bags.

"Every single one has been delivered either early or on time," said Stephen Eppinette, Bell's manager for Army programs.

The company has also begun rebuilding old Kiowa cabins and will manufacture new cabins for the Army, which will send them to its Corpus Christi depot. There, they will be combined with spare engines, transmissions and other components to replace aircraft lost or badly damaged in combat.

The next generation

At the same time, the Army has launched a 10-year, $2 billion effort to overhaul the fleet once again. The existing D-models will be converted to F-models equipped with new digital flight controls and weapons, color video and laser targeting systems.

A key feature of the next evolution of the Kiowa reflects the Army's experience fighting in the barren environs of Afghanistan and Iraq. It replaces the OH-58D mast-mounted surveillance and targeting system, which was designed to look over trees and down-range for Russian tanks, with a nose-mounted, downward-looking system better suited to deserts and mountains.

In an era of tight budgets, the Army has made the OH-58F upgrade program one of its highest priorities.
In recent congressional testimony by Army officials, "the OH-58 was the only Army aviation program on their top priority list," Rauer said.

But even the F-model upgrade won't solve one of the Kiowa's shortcomings -- the ability to operate in high altitudes in hot weather. It's a common problem for helicopters in general and Afghanistan in particular.

Looking ahead, the Army has put such "hot and high" capability on its wish list. And Bell, hoping to seize the moment and head off any competition to replace the Kiowa with an entirely new helicopter for many years to come, has suggested yet another makeover for the OH-58.

For a couple of years now, the Army has been studying what it needs in a future replacement for the Kiowa. U.S. and foreign manufacturers, looking ahead, are working on various concepts. The Army won't announce its ideas for months, perhaps a year or more. And even then, the funding source for such a program is questionable as defense budgets flatten out or even shrink.

So Bell has proposed adding a new, more powerful engine and an improved rotor and transmission to the OH-58, which it says will enable the aircraft to meet the Army's requirements to hover at 6,000 feet in 95-degree heat.

Bell is spending its own money to pursue the idea. It bought an old, surplus OH-58A model, converted into a D-model, and added the new engine, transmission and rotor. It flew the aircraft for the first time this month and will continue test flights to prove that it meets the Army's requirements.

Bell's proposal would fit the Army's budget and give it a much better helicopter sooner, Eppinette said. "It truly is a low-cost solution and it meets their timetable."

More importantly, perhaps, the Army could sell the plan to Pentagon leaders and Congress as yet another modification and upgrade, rather than all-new aircraft procurement. Bell could keep its competitors from getting any more of the Army's business.

And the Kiowa Warriors would be fighting far into the future.

How the old Warriors keep soldiering on

Bell Helicopter and the Army have undertaken a number of programs to keep the venerable OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters safe, up-to-date and ready to fight:

Safety enhancement

Bell is in the final stages of a project begun in 1997 to upgrade the entire OH-58D fleet with crash-worthy seats, cockpit air bags, digital electronic engine controls, a moving map display and video link, and digital surveillance and weapons packages.

Wartime replacement cabins

To replace aircraft lost in combat and accidents, the Army is rebuilding Kiowas from parts and components, some salvaged from damaged or wrecked helicopters. Bell will rebuild 18 cabins from Vietnam-era A-model Kiowas to current D-model standards and plans to restart a production line to produce new cabins.

Conversion of D-models to F-models

This year, the Army has begun a $2 billion, 10-year program to totally overhaul the OH-58 fleet with new technology. Key features include a new nose-mounted sensor system including low-light, color digital video, dual-channel (redundant) digital engine controls, three flat-panel LCD color cockpit screens, a missile warning system and lighter weapons. Bell will produce some new structural components, including the cabin nose.

OH-58F, Block II upgrade

The Block II upgrade would include a new, more powerful turbine engine and four-blade rotor and transmission system. It would meet the "hot and high" requirement to hover at 6,000 feet altitude in 95-degree heat, compared with 4,000 feet for the existing Kiowa.


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