GEC and Bell have upgraded the AH-1W SuperCobra and renamed it the Venom for the British Army's attack-helicopter competition.
I "flew" the GEC-Marconi Avionics Venom simulator at the company's plant at Rochester, in the UK. This fixed-base device has two cockpits set up with the proposed equipment, including crew helmet-mounted displays (HMDs) with integrated sighting system and night-vision goggles (NVGs), for day or night use. A large screen placed in front of the simulator presents a projected view of the outside world - day or night - which the crew would see as they fly.
Before developing the Venom, GEC examined the well-proven SuperCobra, and US Marine Corps experience with it, and identified what it saw as the helicopter's shortcomings. These included:
unsuitability for night and bad-weather operations;
the lack of a long-range targeting system capable of identifying targets positively before they are shot at with "fire-and-forget" weapons at ranges beyond the reach of anti-helicopter weapons;
a lack of weapons to suit all likely scenarios, from defence against modern tanks, to escort duties in all of the world's environments, ranging from desert, jungle, swamps and mountainous Arctic conditions.
To overcome these problem areas, the company has provided:
a complete day, night and bad-weather capability at all operating altitudes, not only to fly the aircraft, but to carry out the assigned tasks;
an enhanced weapons-management system.
NEW SIGHTING SYSTEM
The nose-mounted sighting system allows the pilot to change the field of view in three steps, from narrow to wide. It has television for day and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) for night and bad-weather operations and can track targets automatically. The sight can also be steered via the crewman's helmet. Both cockpits have NVG-compatible lighting, so that everything stays visible when goggles are worn. The pilot's FLIR, with which he/she can see through the night and all weathers, is independent of the gunner's night-targeting system. The pilot can see the outside world with it and fly accordingly. The pilot can also see on his HMD all the flying information he needs - attitude, airspeed, ground speed, height, heading, steering commands, vertical speed and power, for example.
The cockpits are now unrecognisable from those of the SuperCobra, which I flew at Bell's Fort Worth, Texas, plant in December (see Flight Test, P28). The interior shape has been modified, to accommodate nearly all sizes and shapes of the human body. Forward visibility from the rear cockpit has been improved, by enlarging the gap through which the crewman looks, and by removing the obstructions.
As the cockpits are almost the same, either occupant can fly the aircraft or manage the weapon system. The clutter of dozens of instruments and switches has been removed entirely and replaced with two identical multi-function displays (MFDs) on each instrument panel, which, as their name suggests, do everything done by the instruments they replace. Eight hard keys below each display bring up the following pages:
warnings of any system malfunctions - this is automatic and overrides whatever else is on the screen at the time. Anything important that was on that screen can be transferred to the other. There are also audio warnings for the more serious malfunctions. The screen also presents the emergency/malfunction operating-procedures checklist, as well as the normal-operating checklists. The system alleviates the need for the pilot to monitor temperatures, pressures, fuel quantities and the like and for him to memorise checklists, emergency procedures and limitations;
warnings of any outside threats approaching, or in the vicinity;
target-acquisition information, slaved to the two mission grips in each cockpit. The grips, one for each hand, are fully retractable into the instrument panel and contain all the controls for the weapons-management system. Furthermore, the pilot, who now occupies the front seat, has a repeater trigger on his side-stick, so that he can continue flying the aircraft while firing the weapons;
weapons status - availability of weapons remaining;
aircraft systems - any of the systems can be brought up and interrogated;
communications - all communication and navigation-aids details can be viewed. A crewman can select whichever radio he wants, then its frequency, without removing his hands from the controls. The cockpit has been designed for the operation of most systems in this way;
flight information - this shows all the information which the pilot requires to fly the helicopter. This is duplicated on his HMD. Should all the electrics fail, which is extremely unlikely considering the amount of redundant electrical power available (there are two identical mission computers driving the MFDs), there are a small artificial horizon, airspeed indicator and altimeter instrument on the end of each instrument panel;
map - the coloured digital-map display is kept up to date by the navigation systems. The map can be oriented north/south, or with the present track running up/down - a nice touch. The current position, is shown by a representative aircraft on the map. The map can be overlaid with additional information, such as the position of other aircraft, waypoints and targets. There is capacity in the MFDs for more pages, if required. There are also soft keys down both sides of each screen for the management and interrogation of the information presented.
Before flight, the mission is planned and all the data is placed on to a cassette, which is then fed to the aircraft's computers and made available to the crew and the helicopter's systems. There is a "scratch pad" in the form of a screen in each cockpit, with buttons for creating or modifying data.
The pilot's cockpit at the front still has the short stubby side-stick positioned on a shelf by the right fuselage wall. GEC has given this its own hydraulic boost system and a trim system, the lack of which I found slightly degraded the pilot's handling ability on the SuperCobra. The stick itself has been redesigned, to include switches to relevant systems. The only significant difference with the rear cockpit is the removal of the scratch pad from the bottom centre of the instrument panel, to make way for an ingenious telescopic cyclic-control stick. When the occupant of this seat needs to use the weapons handgrips, he can push the cyclic vertically down out of the way, just like collapsing a telescope. Apparently the helicopter can still be flown with it in the lowered position.
The Venom has a hover-hold autopilot, which will control the aircraft in pitch, roll and yaw, but not height. The hover hold is essential for night and bad-weather operations, as I was to find out.
The aircraft has an integrated inertial-navigation/global-positioning system, which feeds the moving-map display. Time and distance to way-points are available. There is flexibility for the operator to install other aids.
In addition to conventional target sighting and FLIR systems, the SuperCobra can pop up momentarily from a hidden position, allowing the crew to view a potential target, record it on video, review it - one frame at a time if need be - and transmit the picture to the outside world. If the decision is made to engage the target, the system can be programmed to fire a missile without viewing the target again - a "fire-and-forget" capability. Alternatively, an outside source can provide the crew with the position of the target, with the same result.
Either crewman can slave, the cannon to what he sees, through his helmet. He can also cue the other crewman to look at what he is seeing.
The aircraft is designed to carry a huge variety of weapons, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, 70mm rockets, 20mm cannon, passive-targeting, long-range, night and bad-weather and "fire-and-forget" systems.
I flew a typical mission in the simulator, starting in daytime. After a briefing and demonstration from Peter Jones, GEC's programme manager, displays division, I was able to fly safely through fairly hilly territory, following the track line on the map display and the track directions in the HMD. I chose not to disturb my concentration on the "outside world" by referring to the flight information on the MFD, but relied instead on the HMD.
We were joined by two other aircraft, which appeared on the map. I could see, by glancing down at the map, that we were approaching a waypoint. The cursor on the HMD compass rose was already indicating that I should be turning. We turned on to the next track and flew several tracks over differing terrain, through valleys and over hills.
I found the symbology excellent. An example is the radar-altimeter display, which, when the aircraft is down to 200ft (60m) above the ground, changes its presentation to alert you that you are very low. There have been a lot of inputs to get the symbology right - for example, from the US Marine Corps and UK military test pilots.
For the last half of the flight we went in to night operations. The FLIR was selected and I could see enough to continue flying safely at low level through the valleys and over the hills. As I turned my head, so the FLIR turned. We slowed down as we approached the target area and the hover hold was engaged. I have been conditioned/spoiled by coastguard-helicopter search-and-rescue operations (where height can be held automatically), but height is not difficult to control, given the noticeable radio-altimeter presentation. Various targets - all tanks - were selected and various weapons launched.
A full training course on the systems takes 10-12h, hands on. Most crews, cope well after, about 30min in the simulator. It is possible to have several simulators in different locations - all linked.
Source: Flight International