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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rotorcraft Report: Heard in the Hallways: Will the Little Bird Fill the ARH Slot?

Even when the announcement was made that Bell Helicopter had won the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) contract in 2005, company insiders were skeptical of the rotorcraft giant’s ability to deliver a militarized, single-engine 407 on time and under budget.

Apparently, the skeptics were right. Bell’s ARH contract was effectively dropped pursuant to a section in the Nunn-McCurdy amendment to the Defense Authorization Act for 1982, which calls for the cancellation of a contract if the cost rises above 25 percent of the original cost estimate. The contract may, however, stay in force if the secretary of defense finds the program is too vital to halt as is or the rise in cost was due to changes in the contract itself. An official audit recently concluded that neither of the two "stops" existed.

Talk around the trade shows is that Boeing wants to win the contract to sell a fleet of its tough, single-engine, egg-shaped AH-6 Little Bird as the new ARH.

Boeing acquired the intellectual rights to the small weapon-wielding Little Bird in early 2005 after Mesa, Ariz.-based MD Helicopter (MDHI) — a subsidiary of Swedish-based RDM Holdings at the time — sold the design to next-door neighbor Boeing to keep the then financially cash-strapped MDHI afloat for a while longer.

Right now, what’s in it for Boeing is another military contract for a design that already exists. And since the AH-6 began its life as a member of what is now the MDHI family, a subsidiary of N.Y.-based Patriarch Partners, it shares many of its components with the civilian MD-500 line, which all but guarantees MDHI a role as a major subcontractor.

Back when MDHI was under RDM Holdings, it looked set to win a Coast Guard bid with its MD-902. But the government selected the Agusta A109E for its drug interdiction missions, leaving two of the orange and white, twin-engine aircraft sitting on the ramp in Mesa. The scenario repeated itself in 2006 under Patriarch Partners when Eurocopter’s EC-135 beat out the MD-902 for the Army’s new light utility helicopter; a loss that still doesn’t sit well the company.

MDHI, however, is significantly stronger today than it was when it lost the Coast Guard and Army bids. It seems ready to help Boeing service a hefty contract.

Meanwhile the Army said it wants to move forward with an ARH alternative as soon as possible. Industry observers think Boeing’s AH-6 Little Bird is perfectly suited for that slot.

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