By Sofia Bledsoe
COL Shane Openshaw, Apache Helicopters Project Manager, accepts the keys from David Koopersmith, Boeing Vice President for Attack Helicopter Programs, during the Apache Block III Roll Out Ceremony Nov. 2 at the Boeing Apache production facility in Mesa, AZ. (Photos by Sofia Bledsoe.)
The world’s most lethal attack helicopter just got even better.
Inside a hangar against a backdrop of lights and fog, looking as intimidating as ever, the first AH-64D Longbow Apache Block III (AB3) was revealed to the public for the first time during a Roll Out ceremony Nov. 2 at the Boeing Apache production plant in Mesa, AZ.
“To say that I’m proud would be a tremendous understatement,” said COL Shane Openshaw, Project Manager Apache Helicopters. “This first step took a tremendous amount of teamwork and is a reflection of great accomplishment with the combined efforts of this team.”
That teamwork was evidenced by the attendance of approximately 500 at the ceremony, including several dignitaries such as former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Richard A. Cody, now retired, who flew the first AB3 prototype; retired GEN Thomas Allen Schwartz, former Commanding General, U.S. Army Forces Command; plus various congressional representatives, other retired general officers, several international defense military representatives, current and former Apache project managers, and some members of the Boeing workforce.
“They’re here to say thank you to this entire team for your hard work and dedication to deliver this aircraft,” said MG Tim Crosby, Program Executive Officer Aviation. Directing his attention to the workforce, he added, “What we’re talking about today is the achievement of that vision (Army Modernization). Every one of you who have worked on this aircraft is part of that success. Don’t take this lightly. You will save lives of our American Soldiers by what you have done. You have reduced the burden on that Soldier.”
The Apache Block III, the next step in the evolution of the Army’s premier attack helicopter, is the only rotorcraft in the Army inventory that can operate at 6,000 feet and 95 degrees at an out-of-ground effect hover with a full mission payload. The new Apaches will be stronger, faster, and less constrained in extreme combat conditions. Besides the increase in top speed, it will turn faster and tighter, making it almost impossible for the enemy to hide. It will have a combat speed of approximately 164 knots, about 20 knots faster than the Apaches currently in service.
Some of the key upgrades to the Apache Block III include a more powerful engine and drivetrain, and composite rotor blades that provide more lift and will allow the aircraft to fly over any mountain in austere places like Afghanistan. “The Block III brings back the power margins that crews had at roughly 3,000 or 4,000 pounds lighter gross weight than the Block II model,” said LTC Dan Bailey, Apache Block III Product Manager.
The aircraft had become heavier over the years when the Army added upgrades to the subsystems, making the pilot power margins more limited. “Now we’ll be able to go to all those places where the enemy tends to hide from us,” said Bailey.
Another key upgrade with the Apache Block III is its more advanced computer processing system called the Future Networked Force, which will ensure connectivity to the next generation of networked capabilities, making the aircraft viable and sustainable through the 2030/2040 timeframe.
The Block III’s open system architecture will allow the Army to put new subsystems onto the aircraft much more efficiently. As the pilots learn and as the environment changes, the Army can adapt the aircraft to whatever enemy force they encounter. “The Apache Block III is the leading edge today in terms of rotorcraft, and it’s the most advanced attack helicopter in the world. We want to maintain that, and the only way we can is by resetting the aircraft from an architecture perspective,” said Bailey.
Key to the open system architecture is the ability of the Apache Block III to perform at Level 4 Interoperability with an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). This means that the pilot can now control the flight path, weapon systems, and sensors on a UAS. “Only the Block III aircraft, with its new computer processors and open architecture, allows this to happen,” he said.
Already ahead of schedule, to date the Army has inducted 29 aircraft under the Apache Block III program. The initial operational test is planned for spring 2012. Equipping the first unit, which will be the 1st Battalion, 1st Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Riley, KS, is slated to begin in 2012. Currently, the Army is approved for 51 AB3 aircraft under the low rate initial production.
The Apache Block III is fundamentally a remanufacture program, taking existing Longbow Apaches, inducting them, taking them apart, upgrading and refurbishing components, and adding the new Block III-specific capability insertions. The Army’s acquisition objective stands at 690 Apache Block III aircraft, with 634 remanufactures and 56 new builds. The Block III remains the world’s most lethal helicopter.
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