Chinook upgrade dodges a budget bullet

Several years ago, the Army's Chinook helicopter found itself on the Nunn-McCurdy watch list.

The program to upgrade the CH-47F cargo helicopters was running over cost and budget schedules, and legislators wanted answers.

'In the 2001 timeframe, the government started doing calculations and looking at future cost rates. The estimated unit cost of the remanufactured aircraft was going to exceed what we budgeted for,' said Army Lt. Col. Anthony Pelczynski, product manager for the CH-47F program, which operates out of Alabama's Redstone Arsenal. 'That's when they started realigning the initial estimates.'

Nunn-McCurdy, an amendment to the 1982 Defense authorization bill, was designed to limit cost overruns in major weapons programs. It calls for terminating weapons programs whose total costs grew by more than 25 percent above original estimates.

Listing the CH-47F on the watch list symbolized to top Army leaders that the program was in trouble.

Claude Bolton, the Army's assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, stepped in to perform an extensive review to rescue the program, designated as one of the Army's transformational future force systems that will support the service's Future Combat Systems initiative. Ultimately, Bolton told lead contractor Boeing Co. to reduce costs.

Today, the Army is touting the success of its $11.4 billion, heavy-lift cargo helicopter, which is getting a digital cockpit overhaul, communications suite modernization and navigational upgrade under the CH-47F Improved Cargo Helicopter program. The program office has become the first in the Army to integrate all the elements of the weapons system's lifecycle management model, Pelczynski said.

The Chinook, which has a 50,000-pound maximum gross weight, including fuel, payload and crew, needed a major avionics suite revamp. Officials found it by adding the Common Avionic Architecture System, designed by Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Digital dashboard

CAAS takes the helicopter from an analog to a digital dashboard with a moving map display for faster mission planning and situational awareness, officials said.

The digital cockpit uses a Mil-Std 1553 bus to handle tactical data links, communications and navigation data. The cockpit also features Ethernet-connected databases, voice data transfers, an integrated data modem, a common missile warning system, and the Joint Variable Messaging Format.

Based on Rockwell's Cockpit Management System, CAAS uses a single, open, common avionics architecture for all platforms.

The automated system helps crews more effectively plan missions and manage fuel while increasing their situational awareness, Pelczynski said.

The upgraded communications suite also features the Common Missile Warning System, a system of infrared technology including jammers, flares and missile alerts. The CMWS is made up of electro-optical sensors and an internally mounted electronics control unit, which detects incoming missiles, provides ample warnings to flight crews and dispenses countermeasures.

'This operates in environments higher than other aircrafts,' said John S. Smolka, chief warrant officer at the Defense Contract Management Agency, which is overseeing the contract work for the government.

Smolka said capabilities like the Army's successful Blue Force Tracking system would eventually be integrated into the digital cockpit displays as part of the integrated data modem upgrades.

The Army is scheduled to receive its first upgraded aircraft in late summer 2006.

The moving, digital map display replaces an old and time-consuming process that forced flight crews to flip through handheld maps to find out where they were headed, Pelczynski said. The digital process includes symbol overlays and electronic messaging that helps crews plan for fuel stops.

The automated system also comes with the Data Transfer System, which lets pilots load and store preflight and mission data.

The Army and Boeing decided to combine production of the Chinook and the MH-47G, a version of the improved Chinook that supports the Special Operations Command.

'The question we asked ourselves is, what did we need to do to the avionics suite/cockpit to bring it up to 21st century technology, so it can support where we're going,' Pelczynski said.

Many of the helicopters are original CH-47A to CH-47Ds that are undergoing a third manufacturing. The Army decided to upgrade the fleet to get a handle on escalating maintenance and operation costs.

'We're giving them another 20 years of life, so they're like brand new,' Pelczynski said.

The Army and Boeing helped turn the program around by outsourcing some functions, such as warehousing, property management, and subcomponent production. Although Boeing is the system integrator, Rockwell is the prime vendor for most of the hardware and software for CAAS.

Chinooks, which have been around for more than 40 years, will remain in the Army's inventory until at least 2035.

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