With the manufacture of the British Army's Boeing/Westland Apache AH1 attack helicopter having spanned more than three years and four different production standards, part of the UK's 67-strong fleet is now the subject of an extensive retrofit programme being conducted at AgustaWestland's Yeovil production plant.

The site was responsible for the final assembly of 59 of the army's new aircraft after the first eight were completed at Boeing's manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona. On track for completion next April, the current system enhancement programme will bring the aircraft up to a common standard before the army forms its first aviation regiment to be equipped with the type.

Around one-third of the Apaches due for modernisation have already completed the process, which embodies a package of modifications totalling some 2,000 man-hours for each of the UK's earliest production standard aircraft, which spanned airframe numbers 1-18. Subsequent standards spanned aircraft 19-29, 30-37 and 38-67 respectively, with the amount of modernisation work required decreasing through the second and third batches.

Retrofit equipment now being installed includes BAE Systems' Helicopter Integrated Defensive Aids System (HIDAS), an enhanced communications suite, a low-altitude warning system, a health and usage monitoring system and a collective training capability.

A further, fleet-wide modification to be conducted in the field will see the UK's Apaches receive replacement composite horizontal stabilators manufactured by AgustaWestland. In addition to providing an enhanced level of protection against any debris when the aircraft fires its AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, the reduced-weight design also allows the removal of some ballast from the aircraft's nose, improving performance.

Difficulties encountered earlier in the project through delays in the aircraft's training system resulted in the well-publicised storage of some of the army's Apaches, so the fleet has a wide range of usage. The service's fleet leader has amassed around 700 flying hours, while some of its aircraft - including those kept in storage at RAF Shawbury since their delivery - have logged only "in the tens" of hours, says AgustaWestland.

Staffing levels at AgustaWestland's Apache assembly hall in Yeovil have settled at around 50 fitters - roughly half the number employed at the peak of UK production, which saw two aircraft completed every month. Beyond the current fleet standardisation, the company hopes to secure continued maintenance contracts in support of the UK fleet that could include work scheduled after every 300h and 600h of flying. Industry sources expect the company will succeed in landing work on the 600h depot-level strip but lower-level maintenance activities may be shared with the army so that the service retains key field skills.

AgustaWestland says its secure Apache assembly hall could also play a part in production of the US101 if selected for the US Navy's VXX US presidential transport helicopter fleet. However, at least 70% of the aircraft and its systems will be manufactured in the USA.

Source: Flight International