Service moving to H-60 Black Hawks

The Air Force’s vice chief of staff has approved a replacement strategy for the service’s 40-year-old UH-1N Huey fleet that would involve replacing the outdated aircraft with retired Army UH-60A Black Hawk utility helicopters.

The plan, which Air Force Global Strike Command has been developing throughout the year, was approved by Gen. Larry Spencer — a member of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council — on July 24, the service confirmed this week.

The plan would recapitalize all 62 Hueys with a commensurate number of retired Army Black Hawks. Those choppers would be upgraded from the A-model to the newer L-model configuration, as suggested by in RAND Corp. study published earlier this year.

“On 24 July 2014 the Air Force vice chief of staff approved a replacement strategy utilizing divested UH-60A aircraft from the U.S. Army and modifying those aircraft into UH-60L,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Eric Badger wrote in an Aug 28 email to Inside the Air Force. “These aircraft would undergo further mission-specific modifications. The Air Force intends to replace all UH-1N aircraft. The specific acquisition management office has yet to be determined.”

The service would not disclose how much the replacement plan would cost. Badger said until funding is allocated to stand up program office to manage the acquisition, a formal cost estimate cannot be developed.

Badger would not say if funding for Huey replacement would be included in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2016 budget submissions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “The budgetary information is still pre-decisional and the Air Force is unable to comment on pre-decisional budget information,” he said.

The statement from the service comes after the head of the command’s newly created helicopter operations group, speaking during an Aug. 22 interview with ITAF, expressed confidence that a long-term Huey replacement plan is taking shape.

The Air Force has been trying to replace the outdated Huey for several years, most recently through the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform program that was terminated in 2013 due to financial constraints. This year, a RAND Corp. study suggested the best way forward is to replace 62-aircraft UH-1N fleet with retired A-model Army Black Hawks. Those aircraft should then be converted to the L-model, the study recommended.

That work would be performed by the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas at an estimated cost of $6.5 million per aircraft, a spokeswoman there told ITAF in March. Black Hawk manufacturer Sikorsky would almost certainly be the lead industry partner on that effort.

This Black Hawk replacement plan has gained the most traction among the Air Force’s Huey community, with officials from the schoolhouse at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, and at various squadrons stating during a series of interviews that moving to a common H-60 airframe Air Force-wide is the best way forward.

Sikorsky officials have also offered suggestions for replacing the Hueys with Black Hawks. Depending on what the Air Force can afford, company officials said the service could either restore and reset the excess Army Black Hawks and keep them in the A-model configuration or simply purchase new production M-model H-60s — a more expensive option.

The Black Hawk procurement strategy appears to align with the Air Force’s recent decision to buy 112 new Combat Rescue Helicopters from Sikorsky to replace the old and war-weary HH-60G Pave Hawks. The CRH is a close derivative of the Army H-60M.

Global Strike Command is the lead operator of the UH-1N and its policy staff took the lead on developing a recapitalization plan. The command’s three Huey squadrons support operations around the nuclear missile fields in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Earlier this week ITAF asked AFGSC whether the Black Hawk plan had been approved, but the command declined to say. In an Aug. 25 email, Pampe said the Air Force continues to consider a rang of options.

“Final cost is dependent on which option is selected.” Pampe said.

Replacing the UH-1N with baseline UH-60 helicopter will allow the Air Force to eliminate an entire line of helicopters from its inventory, if funded. This would potentially free resources and bring a level of commonality to the vertical-lift enterprise, leaving just H-60-variant choppers and tilt-rotor CV-22s remaining in the service’s inventory.

“It just makes things more efficient,” Col. David Smith, head of the Global Strike Command’s helicopter operations group said during the recent interview.

In July, the director of operations for the 512th Rescue Squadron, the Air Force’s only UH-1N and HH-60G formal training unit, outlined his case for moving to a common airframe. He did not point to any airframe in particular.

“The benefit of transitioning to a common platform Air Force-wide may benefit the entire fleet by offering greater opportunities for cross-flow between units that conduct different Air Force rotary-wing missions,” Lt. Col. Nicholas Dipoma said. “I think that the potential benefits emerging from that, if the transition is well-managed, cannot be understated. The reasons have to do with standardization in training, maintenance, and some tactics — but especially in terms of career opportunities for USAF rotary-wing personnel.” — James Drew

Inside the Air Force – 08/29/2014, Vol. 25, No. 35