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US Army to trial glass cockpit retrofit for OH-58, TH-67 helicopters

A US Army Bell OH-58 has been outfitted with a glass cockpit as part of a new project that could lead to retrofits for its entire OH-58 and Bell TH-67 helicopter fleets.

Yulista Aviation has installed on an OH-58 a completely new instrument panel, featuring two glass cockpit displays from Sagem Avionics. The Alabama-based maintenance and modification shop has begun ground testing the upgraded aircraft and expects to receive US Army authorisation to begin flight tests within the next couple of weeks.

The company has also been selected by the army to outfit a TH-67 trainer with a similar glass cockpit, and says it plans to modify a prototype "this summer".

Once it completes an evaluation of both prototypes, the US Army is expected to launch a competition to retrofit its OH-58 and TH-67 fleets. It now operates about 180 TH-67s and more than 400 OH-58s, which are primarily used for reconnaissance missions.

Yulista and Sagem say the concept is to introduce a cockpit that has the same feel as larger helicopters. Glass cockpits have already been introduced as part of upgrades to other army platforms, including the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing CH-47 Chinook.

When pilots now transition from the OH-58 and TH-67, several hours have to be spent on avionics training, and familiarising them with glass cockpits earlier is seen as more cost effective.

Sagem was selected to supply displays for both prototypes as it has been involved in retrofit projects for the civilian Bell 206, from which the OH-58 and TH-67 are derived.

Yulista says the army has essentially acquired the US Federal Aviation Administration supplemental type certificate, which was secured for the 206 by Vector Aerospace with support from Sagem. Yulista, which has experience designing glass cockpit retrofits for other US Army aircraft including the Fairchild Dornier C-26, is leading the effort to adopt the STC to military requirements, with some of the engineering work being performed by Vector.

The project began in 2009 with the OH-58, as Yulista says it is the simpler of the two 206 derivatives. The TH-67 has a wider instrument panel to accommodate dual systems and instrumented flight rules capability.

A request for proposals expected in mid-2011 is likely to result in bids from several modification shops and avionics suppliers. While Sagem could have an advantage given its involvement in the prototypes, several other avionic suppliers including Cobham, Garmin and Rockwell Collins are expected to respond. Vendors for smaller parts of the cockpit, including radios and standby indicators, will also be required.

The programme is also expected to generate interest from several US maintenance and modification firms, which would be likely to serve as prime contractor as the army lacks an in-house capability to install new cockpits.

A subsidiary of Alaska-based Calista, Yulista does not plan to bid on the production programme, as it specialises in developing new modifications, rather than modifying large fleets. The current modification work is being conducted by Yulista Management Services.

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