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Thursday, May 1, 2008

H-1 Makes Headway, VH-71 Worries NavAir

The head of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command, Vice Adm. David Venlet, says there’s progress on the U.S. Marine Corps H-1 upgrade program, but the VH-71 presidential helicopter program is still struggling.

Venlet told Rotor & Wing that the Bell Helicopter H-1 program is heading into this year’s operational testing in decent shape. The program suffered from early design and manufacturing troubles, and more recently has faced a number of technical challenges.

"I think we’ve come through a tough time," Venlet said. "They’re flying, they’re proceeding for their operational test this year."

Bell is building two kinds of H-1 for the Marines: the utility UH-1Y and the attack AH-1Z. The company says the two models have 84 percent commonality and identical cockpits, making them easier for the Marines to fly and maintain. But the program got off to a rocky start — early plans to rebuild older aircraft didn’t work out, in part because the Marines couldn’t spare the airframes from combat operations. The company has struggled to get the program back on track. Venlet said the new H-1s are finally on the cusp of proving themselves.

"We’ve got solid green from the operational testers at Marine Corps headquarters," he said. "I think they’re going to get satisfactory envelope and capability on the initial ones. And then we just need to get down to building them and pumping them out."

The picture isn’t as rosy for VH-71, the new presidential helicopter program. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, using an airframe based on the AgustaWestland AW101. But adapting that airframe to the mission proved a lot tougher than expected, leading to huge cost overruns and an ambitious redesign. The current, $11.2 billion plan calls for five Increment One aircraft based on the initial design, with another 23 new-design aircraft slated for Increment Two — if there’s enough money in the budget. There’s a stop-work order on Increment Two. Two AW101s are in flight testing, with a third being prepped to join them. Venlet said there’s not enough money to work on both phases at the same time.

Venlet said the White House’s requirements for range, payload, and onboard equipment aren’t changing, so the Navy will have to find a way to make the AW101 work. "There’s no fuzz in what that takes," Venlet said "There’s nothing on the shelf that can do that, so we’re just knuckling down." — Rebecca Christie

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