Helicopter fleet showing its age

Budget woes force Army leaders to keep upgrading rather than buying new helicopters for its fleet.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first delivery of the CH-47 Chinook to the Army fleet, Army Col. Bob Marion, project manager for Army cargo helicopters, ordered his team to find out the fate of the very first Chinook. To his surprise, Marion’s soldiers found the helicopter still in the fleet.

Returned from a recent deployment to Afghanistan, the first Chinook delivered to the Army in 1962 now flies in the Washingtion National Guard. Granted, it has since been upgraded from an Alpha to a Delta model, the Chinook’s longevity serves as an example of both craftsmanship and the Army’s dependence on upgrades rather than new starts to maintain its helicopter fleet.

With that example in mind, the message delivered to the Army aviation community Monday was to expect more of the same. Shrinking budgets mean the Army will have to make do with the fleet it has flown the past decade up to seven-times harder than service officials ever expected.

Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, head of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, told the soldiers at the Army Aviation Association of America conference here that the aviation branch must remain focused on delivering the Future Vertical Lift program. Crutchfield urged the crowd gathered at the Opryland Hotel to not lose site of the aircraft that he said will revolutionize the Army’s fleet.

Of course, the pilots here will most likely never fly one. Under best case scenarios, the Army wants the Future Vertical Lift aircraft to enter the fleet in 2030.

The austere budget environment has made the word “new start” a rare phrase heard inside the Pentagon. However, the Army can’t continue the repetitive cycle of constantly upgrading legacy aircraft, Crutchfield said.

“The helicopters we have today eventually will be obsolete … no matter how much money we put into them,” Crutchfield said.

Crutchfield can probably hear the murmurs from the armed reconnaissance pilots eager for a replacement to their OH-58 Kiowas. He told the crowd they must all speak with one voice in support of future programs in what seemed to be a message to those expecting a Kiowa replacement to stay on board even if the Army can’t afford one.

As more time passes, the more it looks like the Army is backing away from buying a new Armed Aerial Scout even though they plan to test industry’s entries in June. The dialogue is instead leading toward the likelihood that the Army will pursue a service life extension program.

Aviation officials keep emphasizing how the training and sustainment costs must be considered when buying the Armed Aerial Scout. These are valid costs and will make up the chunk of the price tag over the life of the program. However, Pentagon officials avoid mentioning those costs when they are truly eager to buy something. The phrase “per vehicle cost” is mentioned instead.

That has been the story for the Army aviation community. It had its shot with the Commanche, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got in the way. Costs were spiraling and aviation leaders chose to upgrade their legacy fleets instead.

The upgrade mentality, however, has left the Army with 50-year-old helicopters still flying in its fleet.