Tuesday, May 08, 2007

R&W @ Quad A

Rotor & Wing magazine is reporting from the Army Aviation Association of America convention in Atlanta. Quad A as it's known, is a professional organization of Army aviators and industry types who get together yearly to pat each other on the back and tell everyone what a great job they are doing. In general it's true enough, but we could really stand some honest self critique from time to time...but that's another story. Here's some Apache news from R&W...for those who find those things interesting.

Boeing’s AH-64 Apache is a workhorse of the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will remain a mainstay of U.S. Army aviation as the Block 3 Apache, with its greater net-centric capabilities, comes on line starting in 2011. We discussed the latest on the program and its lessons learned from combat operations with Al Winn, Boeing’s vice president of Apache programs.

How is the Block 3 effort going? The program’s moving along well. We signed the contract for the system development and demonstration phase of the program last July, and now we’re in the middle of a series of preliminary design reviews (PDRs). We’ve just successfully completed a PDR of the drive system, a weeklong event that looked at the aircraft’s split-torque, face-gear transmission—that’s a new concept—as well as the main gearbox and nose gearbox. We’re on track for the system-level PDR in April 2008.

How are lessons learned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan leading to improvements in the Apache fleet? That’s really been a continuous process. When we were defining the Block 3, for instance, there were lessons learned from Afghanistan. The high-altitude performance requirement for the aircraft really derived from the operations there. Operations in Iraq led us and the Army to refine the connectivity requirements to improve situational awareness and connectivity from both a joint level across the services and with the troops on the ground. Blue Force Tracker was another upgrade that was driven by operational experience.

Whenever a unit returns from Iraq or Afghanistan, a team of us goes down and meets with the unit. First, we recognize what they’ve done for the nation. But we also talk to them about what lessons they learned there that we should be following up on. Apaches are working more closely with troops on the ground, which has led to the troops in the field—both the Apache units and the infantry—developing things on the move.

What are some examples of things “developed on the move”? The troops on the ground want to be communicating directly with the Apaches, and they come up with their own ways to do that. For instance, troops on the ground use laser pointers on targets. So they and the Apache crews came up with a way to mount a laser pointer on the side of the Apache gun. Crew chiefs came up with a sheet-metal bracket for the pointer and mounted it on the turret. Based on that, we worked up a modification to the aircraft to do that on all Apaches.

What’s going on with the Block 2 production line, following delivery of the 501st and last AH-64D under the Army’s multi-year procurements? The Block 2 program finished the multi-year-2 production [the second of two five-year Army procurements] back in July 2006. Then the Army extended Block 2 to procure another 96 aircraft remanufactured from the -64A to D configuration. This is a little different from the previous work, because the Army depots are “de-modding” the As and delivering them to us.

We’re also building new-build AH-64Ds for the Army. The first is scheduled for delivery this month. That’s significant for us. We’re under contract to the Army for 45 new-build -64Ds now.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, complained recently that the industry is not on a war footing. He cited specifically the long lead time in getting war-replacement aircraft, which largely means Apaches. What’s the complaint? Obviously, his concern is that as airplanes are attrited, the need is immediate. The unfortunate thing is the lead time on raw materials has doubled or tripled in the last several years. The typical lead time for an Apache used to be two years. If we just increased our lead times based on the growth in the raw-materials lead time, that would have increased to 36-39 months. That’s not helped by the fact that we are not allowed to buy specialty materials from overseas. We have gone out on long-lead materials and procured them ahead of time to keep that lead time at 24 months or so. We’ve done what we can. We have been able to absorb the lead time. But we haven’t been able to reduce it. There’s very little that’s being done at a national level to address that as a national priority.

36-39 months to make a new helicopter. Does anyone remember how long it took a P-51 Mustang to go from nothing but paper to an actual flying airplane? Well, I'm pretty sure it wasn't that long. I'm sure there are multiple factors at work here...and Boeing isn't totally to blame...but I'm also pretty sure they could find some of the stuff they need to build Apaches at the 787 plant in Washington, or the F-18 plant in St. Louis...just guessing.

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