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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Experiencing the Boeing AH-6i

By Andrew Drwiega

As a civilian and a journalist, when I am presented with the opportunity to fly in a military aircraft, whether at an air show, on an exercise or training flight, or operationally, I usually grab it the first chance I get. Like most things in life, reading about it is never the same as doing it and it is important to experience any aircraft first hand.

Boeing offered me a flight in the AH-6i during the recent Dubai Airshow. The aircraft has a pedigree in its field as its lineage is traced back to the Hughes 500 and the military version, the OH-6 Cayuse. MD Helicopters, with its complex connections to Boeing through previous ownership, is also fielding its own light attack product, the MD540F, although the two are quite different.

The flight in Boeing’s display AH-6i (the ‘i’ means the international version the aircraft) was slated for 9:30 in the morning. Pilot Bill Harris said that we had around 30 minutes, although a typical mission profile would last between an hour and 90 minutes with the onboard fuel, depending on temperature and altitude. Setting up the aircraft from a cold start didn’t take long – around five minutes.

The emphasis inside is on simplifying the process and minimizing input in the air through “hand down” capability from the Block III Apache. The AH-6i can be as technology heavy as desired, from a basic attack scout through an integrated mission enhanced Little Bird (MELB), as specified by the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). Earlier this year, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) awarded a $50-million contract to Boeing to develop upgrades for its A/MH-6M to a Block 2.2 standard, which should have an initial operating capability (IOC) around the middle of 2017. With the 160th the most experienced user of MH-6, the AH-6i is likely to also benefit from any improvements in capability Boeing creates over the next few years.

Sitting in the left-hand seat and with a cutaway door allowing high visibility, we took off and quickly flew to a position a few miles away from the airport’s immediate air traffic zone where Harris began the demonstration. Initially we focused on the L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret. This is a stabilized turret that Harris said can weight up to 113 lbs, depending on the sensor package.

Harris showed its lock-on target function while maneuvering, as well as its long range visual capability – accentuated when the day color camera was overlaid with the infrared picture to give a very precise image at distance. At around eight kilometers from the airport, we witnessed the tires of a moving car (that I could not physically see) glowing with friction heat as the vehicle sped down a freeway.

Using the control hat on the sensor joystick, I quickly began to get the feel of adjusting the crosshairs steady so that the laser designator would remain on target. A few hours of practice would quickly increase an individual’s dexterity, as only small movements of the “hat” were required. Harris turned off the stabilization briefly and the task became noticeably more difficult.

In a hover at around 700 feet AGL, the stability of the platform was excellent considering that this is a “sporty” helicopter that can turn on a dime in the air, another feature that Harris demonstrated a couple times. Flying at a target building, veering away then a quick nose up, pedal turn, he brought the nose back around in a second so that we were pointing again at the target. It is no wonder that the pilots who flew the aircraft’s predecessor (the Loach) in Vietnam loved it. Visibility and agility make it an excellent scout/attack aircraft. Having viewed it from the ground, its low profile also makes it hard to pick up in the air, allowing it to fire long-range Hellfire guided missiles from distance or to prosecute running attacks on lower threat targets.

As a reconnaissance platform, the obvious statement to make is that the two crew in the front have an excellent field of vision; especially with the door panels off. The MX-15 Di provides the technology “muscle” for ISR and targeting. As for load carrying, the oft written about weapons “plank” through the airframe allows a combination of guns and missiles to be attached.

During a briefing at the show, Leanne Caret, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Vertical Lift division, reconfirmed a foreign military sales (FMS) deal with the U.S. government for an international customer. Although she would not name the customer, the country is believed to be Saudi Arabia following its request to the U.S. government in 2010 for 36 AH-6is for its National Guard. Within the region, Jordan has also been interested in the type.

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