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Bell AH-1Z upgrade to switch to new airframes

The final 40 of 180 upgraded Bell AH-1Z attack helicopters for the US Marine Corps are to be built new rather than remanufactured as originally planned - a decision that could improve the design's export prospects.

Under a $20 million contract, Bell will design and proof tooling to build new AH-1Z airframes beginning with Lot 7 procurement in fiscal year 2012. The company has already transitioned to building new UH-1Y utility helicopters under the USMC's H-1 upgrade programme.

Bell's contract also covers integration and qualification of the uprated General Electric T700-401C turboshaft in the new-build AH-1Z. The -401C is already installed in new-build UH-1Ys, while remanufactured AH-1Zs retain their original T700-401 engines. The helicopters also share dynamic systems and avionics.

The H-1 upgrade programme was originally based on remanufacturing AH-1Ws and UH-1Ns, but the USMC switched to new-build UH-1Ys after a handful of helicopters because of issues with airframe condition and downtime. The decision to build new AH-1Zs was prompted by concerns that the aircraft would be too worn-out to remanufacture cost-effectively given their heavy use during combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bell says the AH-1Z and UH-1Y are not yet being actively promoted for export, but it expects the availability of new-build airframes to improve prospects on the international market.

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