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Monday, August 1, 2011

All Change for the Better at Boeing   

During early June this year, Boeing invited members of the international defense media on a tour of some of its key facilities around the USA. This tour included both of the rotorcraft facilities at Philadelphia and Mesa, Arizona. Rotor & Wing’s Military Editor reports

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

Boeing’s AH-6i flies overhead in the Arizona desert during the final day of a media tour with the helicopter manufacturer. Photo by Andrew Drwiega

Within Boeing’s recently restructured Defense, Space and Security (DS&S) division, rotorcraft are no longer grouped together, although they are all part of Chadwick’s military aircraft business. The AH-64 Apache is now within Global Strike alongside the F/A-18 and F-15. The CH-47 Chinook and V-22 Osprey are grouped with C-17s and two tankers in a mobility group. Then there is surveillance and engagement with the AEW&C and P-8A, with the final group comprising missiles and unmanned aerial systems. The other two business groups are Roger Krone’s Network and Space Systems (N&SS) and Global Services and Support, under Tony Parasida. The total of all three comprise DS&S.

Chris Raymond, vice president of business development for DS&S, said that over the foreseeable years throughout the aircraft business there would be fewer new program starts in terms of new products, but those that did develop would be very important and would be carefully scrutinized during their lifecycle. He added that Boeing’s position was secure through its backlog of orders, many with multiyear funding such as AH-64D Block III, CH-47F Chinook and MV/CV-22 Ospreys.

Side-by-side: AH-6i and AH-64D Apache Block II. Photo by Andrew Drwiega

Dennis Muilenburg, President and CEO of DS&S, recognized that it was currently “a challenging environment” for the defense business as a whole due to the downturn in spending still sweeping through the global economy, more especially among European nations and in the U.S. However, as with most defense OEMs and contractors, opportunity is seen to lie in the growth of Asia-Pacific and Middle East. “Our international revenue was seven percent of business five years ago, to 17 percent last year to what we expect to be 25 percent a couple of years out from here,” he said.

But the restructuring of the overall business was as a direct result of the need to drive efficiency, cost reduction and productivity. Muilenburg believes there is now a good balance between the three DS&S businesses—Boeing Military Aircraft, Network and Space Systems, and Global Network and Support. He believes that the bulk of international growth will be witnessed through the military aircraft and satellite sector platform businesses. To that end, Boeing’s rotorcraft business has been shaping to the task.

Leanne Caret, vice president of H-47 programs, provided an overview of the CH-47 business as well as detailing the $130-million redevelopment that is approaching its final stages of the Chinook and V-22 Osprey production facility at Philadelphia. The 80-year-old ex-Baldwin Locomotive works, an area covering 223,000 square feet, has been transformed into an area that is bright and conforms to Boeing’s Lean production flow. Part of the leaning process sees people and components arranged around each aircraft on a priority and point of use basis. This includes the quaintly named Moonshine shops which are, in effect, problem solving task groups. As with all of Boeing’s production lines, even the civilian airliners that we saw being assembled over in Seattle, key people and not just mechanics are close at hand should advice be required.

The complete factory reopening, including an extra 30,000 feet of offices, is scheduled for Sept. 21, 2011—marking the 50th anniversary of the Chinook’s first flight. Caret said that by using a computer aided lighting system that accounts for the extra ambient light that is now allowed into the facility, there has been an energy savings of around $200,000 per year. Accordingly, the facility will be the first in Boeing to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.

Practically, what this really gives Boeing is a much improved production rate. From one production line a year ago there will now be two lines, one dedicated to U.S. Army CH-47F production and the second to a mix of international orders and MH-47Gs for the U.S. Special Forces. Where before in 2003, the output had been comparatively miserly 10 aircraft per year, the transformation now means that Boeing has not only the capability to match the Army’s requirement of CH-47Fs but also to the surge in international orders by manufacturing around six aircraft per month. U.S. Army alone is looking to field a force of around 464 CH-47Fs with 132 being already delivered.

International orders include 15 CH-47Fs for the Canadian Defence Force, six aircraft for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, 16 for the Italian armed forces (through a coproduction contract which will see AgustaWestland conducting final assembly in Italy) and potentially an additional 14 Mk 6 Chinooks to further grow the UK Royal Air Force fleet of 46 aircraft. However, the Ministry of Defence’s budget cutting process has not yet finished and there is still cause for concern about whether this acquisition will survive. This decision actually has a knock-on effect throughout the British military rotorcraft world. The RAF is currently reluctant to go through with the planned hand-over of its AW101 Merlin fleet to the Royal Navy/Commando Helicopter Force until it is sure that the extra Chinooks will be theirs. Until that happens the CHF will keep flying its aged S-61 Sea Kings—actually now less of a problem since the SAR-H competition ground to a halt earlier this year due to the illicit exchange of confidential information to the winning bid group. However, the government has a stated aim of taking all of the Sea Kings out of service by 2016—so time is tight although Caret confirmed that Boeing would be able to deliver the aircraft to the timeframe the MoD would require.

Campaigns for new international orders include 15 for India (which would represent a new and valuable first foothold in that country), and a scattering throughout the world including six for Turkey through Foreign Military Sales agreements and more for Australia. There is also a potential for up to 16 aircraft in the Middle East.

Over at Boeing’s other major rotorcraft works in Mesa, Ariz., the Apache Block III program is of great excitement to all concerned with helicopters, even the older hands. The program “is all about sustainment and modernization,” says Mike Burke, Boeing’s director of rotorcraft business development.

“It provides high technology at low risk.” Low risk is certainly the case as the Apache attack helicopter has been flying missions since the first days of the AH-64A model 28 years ago.

Over three and a half million hours have been flown by Apaches with over 808,000 hours flown during combat operations. Burke adds that deployed U.S. Army units in operational theaters have been flying between six and eight times the standard number of peacetime hours per month while sustaining readiness rates of over 80 percent.

Burke is thankful that the Army has plans for the Apache long into the future. Its expectation is that by the end of 2017 it will have 690 Apache Block III attack helicopters, most of which will have been remanufactured Block I & II aircraft, although there is provision for 56 new build Block IIIs. The Boeing production lines at Mesa will still churn out Block II and Block III aircraft for the next few years until 2013, the date when Block I aircraft will be replaced. Burke believes that the Block III aircraft will be the ‘most popular version yet.’

The international market for Block III has already been kicked-off by an order for 30 of the latest Apaches through an FMS sale to Taiwan, this confirmed by Col. Shane Openshaw, the U.S. Army’s AH-64 program manager. Production of those aircraft will begin as early as October of this year. There are over 300 Apache Block I and II aircraft currently with international military forces with current operators including the British Army Air Corps, the Netherlands, Egypt, Kuwait, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Greece, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Although Britain’s 66 aircraft are designated WAH-64D Longbows, through an agreement that sees AgustaWestland as the UK’s prime contractor, Tommy Filler, deputy of Boeing’s attack helicopter programs said that the British MoD was being provided with information about the Block III upgrades and that solutions were being studied regarding how it could maintain the capability of its Longbow fleet alongside that of the Block III version. Earlier this year the UK Apache fleet registered over 100,000 flying hours, a third of which have been flown operationally in Afghanistan.

Low rate initial production (LRIP) for the Block III was confirmed in September 2010 and the first aircraft will be with the Army this October, with Block III remanufacturing and new builds to continue until 2027. The first Block III aircraft will be used for trials and testing, while regular army aviation units will begin to receive their first Block III aircraft in April 2012.

Improvements to the aircraft include better computing power. “There were 13 computers on an A model Apache, there were eight computers on a D model, and we have reduced it to one computer split in half [on either side of the helicopter] so one round can’t get them both,” said Burke. There is also increased situational awareness through a cognitive decision aiding system which fuses sources of data together and automatically upgrades the mission systems in flight.

Regarding maintenance, there will be significant improvements. “The life of the airframe will be increased to 10,000 hours; the new composite rotor blades and transmission endurances move from 4,500 hours to 10,000 hours. Plus there are sensors around the aircraft that measure heat, temperature and vibration so if you have a gearbox or component going bad it will sense that, inform the pilots and when the Army incorporates the Logistics Information Management System into their ground net, the [onboard] system will be able to ‘phone home’ and tell the ground crew about the problem without the pilots having to do anything about it. This should drive the drive the operational support costs down by a third.”

Alongside the Apache is its “little brother,” as Mike Burke likes to call the AH-6i. With its commonality of systems to around 85 percent, and having been positioned as a reconnaissance/attack helicopter by Boeing, Burke is fond of saying that when its systems are started up “it thinks it’s an Apache.” A lovely sales vision perhaps, but it does possess firepower and capability and it should not be forgotten that any aircraft being used by the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment—and this is an improved version of what they are flying—deserves much consideration.

Boeing is also building the A160T Hummingbird in Mesa. Work was transferred over from Phantom Works in California and the current schedule is for the production of one aircraft per month according to Jeff Hunt, production manager for the A160T.

“The challenge has been getting the supply chain established and we are still completing the transition from California to Mesa,” he said. Boeing is producing all of the avionics and the rotor blades, but the process of identifying all of the core competencies required is ongoing. Partners on the A160 project include L3, Honeywell and System 3.

“This is an affordability driven project and we have got to get the costs down,” stated Hunt. Boeing is building the first 21 aircraft ‘on its own dime’ but from aircraft No. 41 and beyond additional customer funding will be required.

One of three main objectives of the A160T program is to carry cargo (which it has already demonstrated to the U.S. Marine Corps at the Dugway proving grounds and is set to be further tested when it is sent to Afghanistan to conduct further trials in-theater). USMC currently owns two aircraft.

S-100 Camcopter and an unmanned version of the AH-6i on the tarmac. Photo by Andrew Drwiega

Another UAS in Boeing’s current stable is the S-100 Camcopter. Back in August 2009 Boeing teamed with Schiebel Industries of Austria over marketing and support of Schiebel’s S-100 Camcopter compact unmanned aerial system. Boeing’s relationship with the U.S. government and other military customers, especially in the field of rotorcraft, was considered a good business case for both parties. The S-100 can fly in adverse weather conditions at a range of up to 200 km and at a height of up to 18,000 feet.

Vic Sweberg, director, unmanned airborne systems, said during a presentation at Mesa that Boeing had been working with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on experimental demonstrations.

Across Boeing’s rotorcraft portfolio there is a mix of improved older platforms and new UAS aircraft. There was also a hint that the restructuring is also running deep inside the Phantom Works and while new rotorcraft may not be on the design board at the moment, Boeing is investing heavily in the technologies all materials across its defense products that, at the right time and given the right economic conditions, could be applied into the rotorcraft world.

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