The US Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is conducting flight tests of a further enhanced "Little Bird" helicopter destined to conduct clandestine missions until it is replaced by the RW-X rotorcraft in the 2015-18 timeframe, say US Army aviation officials.

First fielded in the early 1980s by the SOAR, the McDonnell Douglas AH-6 attack and MH-6 utility helicopters are being further upgraded by Boeing under the Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) programme.

The MELB upgrade includes the -C30R3 engine, which powers the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, including a full authority digital electronic control. The MELB combines the six-bladed rotor system of the MD600 with a four-bladed tail rotor. The 160th SOAR previously scrapped the no tail rotor anti-torque system conversion "-which did not perform as advertised", notes Kunkel.

Successful completion of the ongoing flight evaluation, which has suffered delays, will lead to the modification in 1999 of the unit's Little Bird inventory, which totals about 20 AH-6s and 20 MH-6s.

Evolved from the small, easily deployable OH-6A Cayuse, the AH-6J gunship and MH-6J assault helicopters "-will handle more equipment and increase performance and safety margins," says Lt Col George Kunkel, head of the unit's Systems Integration and Management Office. "Right now, we're operating at maximum gross weight quite a bit of the time-we're at the top end of the performance envelope," he adds.

The MH-6J is rigged with external pods for assault missions while the AH-6J can be armed with rockets, machine guns, and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Little Birds, which are powered by the 475 kW (650shp) Allison 250-C30, have a maximum take-off weight of 1,795kg (3,950lb). The MELB programme will increase the gross weight to 2,300 kg.

Source: Flight International