The US Army's OH-58F Kiowa Warrior made its first flight on 26 April at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The helicopter, which was designed and built by the army itself, will make a formal debut on 30 April.
"What you're going to see is the ceremonial first flight of this aircraft," says Col Robert Grigsby, the army's project manager for armed scout helicopters. "The aircraft actually flew on Friday for the first time."
Grigsby notes that a "structural test" airframe has already been flying for a few weeks, but that it does not have the avionics found on the F-model aircraft.
Lt Col Matt Hannah, the army's product manager for the Kiowa Warrior, says that the new variant reduces the weight of the Bell OH-58 by 73kg (160lb), which improves the aircraft's performance. But the modernised F-model does not meet the service's requirement to hover out of ground effect at 6,000ft (1,830m) pressure altitude at temperatures of 35˚C (95˚F).
While the upgrade does not rectify the Kiowa's shortcomings in the hot and high environment, it does substantially improve the helicopter's cockpit and sensors. The OH-58F adds a new nose-mounted Raytheon AAS-53 electro-optical/infrared camera, improved cockpit control hardware and software for enhanced situational awareness, Hannah says. It also adds three full-colour multifunction displays, digital inter-cockpit communications, aircraft survivability equipment upgrades and a redesigned aircraft wiring harness.
In the future, the aircraft is expected to receive dual-redundant digital engine controls and digital capability for the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile, Hannah says.
The current Kiowa airframe will be modified under the army-run programme
Right now, the army has completed two true OH-58Fs and one structural test vehicle, Hannah says. The service's prototype integration facility is building the first production representative aircraft in Alabama, and production will transition to Corpus Christi, Texas, "in the fall", he says.
When that happens, the army depot at Corpus Christi will build three production representative aircraft to qualify the facility to produce the upgraded machines. Limited user trials will start in November 2014, while a "Milestone C" decision to start low-rate initial production (LRIP) is expected in March 2015, Hannah says. The first operational unit should be equipped with the new variant by late 2016.
Total production is expected to consist of 368 aircraft. LRIP 1 will include 27 aircraft, while Lot 2 is expected to consist of 32. Full-rate production should start in 2017, with the activity to run though 2025.
While the army originally intended for the OH-58F to leave service around 2025, the US Department of Defense's current budgetary situation may require the Kiowa to remain in the inventory into the mid-2030s, Grigsby says. If that is to happen, there will need to be additional structural upgrades to the aircraft.
While 60% of the OH-58F is new, 40% of the aircraft consists of original components dating back more than 40 years, Hannah says. "The CASUP [cockpit and sensor upgrade] programme is not a service life extension programme, and does not zero time the aircraft," he notes.