By Bob Cox
Bell Helicopter says it has begun demonstration flights to show the Army the capabilities it could offer by further upgrading the ageless OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter.
Bell spokesman Greg Hubbard said demonstrations began Monday in Fort Worth of what Bell is calling the OH-58 Block II upgrade,a prototype of what the company says is a cost effective way to significantly improve the Kiowa’s capabilities and life span.
“The Army has limited money so why would they go to an all new aircraft with all the added costs of training and logistics that would include,” Hubbard said.
Army aviation experts are conducting extensive meetings with helicopter contractors and, in the case of Bell and EADS North America, flying demonstrations as they evaluate whether the service needs, and can afford, a new armed scout helicopter.
Officials of EADS said last week they had successfully demonstrated the capabilities of their proposed aerial scout aircraft, an armed and upgraded version of the Army’s UH-72A Lakota helicopter. EADS has teamed with Lockheed Martin to produce protytpes.
The Army has already embarked on a $2 billion plan to upgrade the combat capabilities of the Kiowa to an OH-58F version, with new digital flight electronics, sensors and weapons targeting system.
But fresh off a decade of experience in the heat and higher altitudes of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army would like to have a scout helicopter capable of operating at as high as 6,000 feet altitude at 95 degree heat, well outside the capabilities of the OH-58D.
Bell has proposed the addition of a new engine, rotor blades, tail rotor and drive system that it says will allow the OH-58 to fly, hover and maneuver with weapons and fuel at the higher altitudes. The prototype aircraft was flown and demonstrated its “hot-and-high” capabilities in Colorado last year.
As important as the performance of the aircraft, Hubbard said, is the cost.
“We had an independent company look at the life cycle cost of our helicopter versus the new (EADS) helicopter. The Block II would save $11 billion over 20 years in life cycle costs,” Hubbard said.
Army and Pentagon officials are expected to decide before the end of the year on a plan for either holding a competition for a new scout helicopter, further upgrading the existing fleet or waiting for additional technology developments.
In addition to the entries from Bell and EADS, AVX Aircraft Co. of Fort Worth has also made proposals to the Army for a massively overhauled OH-58 that would boost its speed, payload and high altitude performance.
The Army is conducting studies of a “Future Vertical Lift” family of aircraft that would be developed beginning later in the decade to eventually replace all of the existing helicopter fleet.