paul lewis / washington

Flight testing of the enhanced AH-64D begins despite cutbacks in improvements

Boeing has started flight testing an AH-64D equipped with a set of incremental enhancements, as the US Army faces the difficult task of curtailing investment in Apache improvements in order to focus on the near-term needs of sustaining the problem-plagued attack helicopter fleet.


A pre-production Apache Longbow is being used to test a series of planned improvements earmarked for inclusion as part of the second multi-year buy of 269 AH-64As remanufactured to AH-64D standard. Changes focus on the upgrade and addition of four digital avionics boxes incorporating for the first time commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

The update is intended to allow the AH-64D to participate in the US Army's digitised battlefield. This will provide expanded access to offboard data, imparting large video files for real time display in the cockpit or storage, as well as a digital map and an enhanced position and reporting system. The last four lots of Multi-Year II helicopters, totalling 217 machines, will feature the digital suite starting with Lot 7 deliveries in 2003.

COTS, in addition to providing future growth capability, is expected to produce a 20% cut in system acquisition costs. The army at the same time is attempting to reduce the AH-64D's average flight costs from $3,084/h to $2,230/h and sustain a mission capable goal of 75%.

Since 1999, the Apache has been hit by series of groundings as the result of accessory gearbox clutch and hanger bearing assembly failures and, more recently, faulty tail rotor swash plates.

As a result the army has embarked on a recapitalisation programme to improve availability and reliability by overhauling or replacing mechanical components such as actuators and gearboxes. Boeing is working with the army to define the full scope of work, but an interim 21 items have already been identified for the AH-64D and another eight for the AH-64A.

This is forcing planners to divert funds away from longer-term modernisation efforts, with the Multi-Year II buy having already been trimmed by 29 helicopters. According to a newly released General Accounting Office report, the army is short of more than $168 million this year and another $158 million in 2002 for required component and airframe upgrades.

Source: Flight International