MY TURN: Col. Joseph Parker, right, Corpus Christi Army Depot commander, takes the aircraft key from a senior test pilot for the first UH-60V produced at Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD). The new UH-60Vs have better pilot interfaces that reduce the burden on the crew. (Photos by Ervey Martinez, CCAD Public Affairs Office)
The Black Hawk UH-60V upgrade is a key component for the Army’s future vertical lift transformation.
by Cheryl Marino
Whether it’s troop transport, medevac, air assault or special ops, the Sikorsky Black Hawk UH-60L “Lima” was made for the mission. Its speed, durable lift capability and overall versatility make it the perfect candidate for an avionics upgrade to produce the Black Hawk UH-60V “Victor”—a digitally reconfigured aircraft with a glass cockpit that matches, and in some cases, outpaces, its predecessor the Black Hawk UH-60M “Mike,” and segues the Army to its Future Vertical Lift program.
“We’re taking all the good stuff of the Lima—the range, the speed, the sling load capacity, the internal cargo weight, and then putting in a new entire wiring system from tip to tail and a fully digital cockpit that takes out all the old gauges that are all analog,” said Col. Joseph Parker, commander of the Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD) in Texas. “Everything now is like flying with four iPads and it’s pretty neat,” which is high praise, coming from an AH64 pilot.
Parker said that, with the digital interface, pilots can do their mission planning outside the aircraft using a computer that works with the same programming as the aircraft, then load it into the aircraft and set up different views and moving maps to monitor everything, from the condition of the aircraft to routes, waypoints, landing zones, pickup zones and return flights at the same time, or however the pilot wants to engage it. “If there’s an issue, you can get a maintenance report from it. You’re not having to judge things by sight, sound and feel. You’re able to get that digital information into the aircraft,” he said. “A better pilot interface reduces crew burden and allows pilots to maintain situational awareness outside the aircraft to execute the mission safer, faster and more effectively.”
Parker, who is working with Col. Calvin Lane, utility helicopters project manager (PM), and his team at the PM Utility Helicopter Program Office within the Program Executive Office for Aviation at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, to produce the UH-60V, said four major benefits have driven the Black Hawk upgrade initiative. Those benefits are: Pilot interface enhancements, flexibility to the combat aviation brigade commander, significant cost savings since the Army owns the software, and the opportunity to breathe new life into an older aircraft.
“The digital technology enhances the pilot interface and reduces the burden of the pilot so that he or she can execute the mission with as little input as required because the helicopter is augmenting the workload,” he said. With the older, more antiquated analog technology, all of the information was brought to the pilot via round gauges with numbers and needles, and the pilot then had to synthesize the position of those needles into an understanding of where the aircraft is in time and space, in order to make decisions about manipulating controls that fly the aircraft. Those older aircraft have no automatic features for holding parameters like position, altitude or heading—so the pilot is flying the aircraft manually throughout its mission while ensuring mission success at the same time.
SOFTWARE OWNERSHIP MEANS COST SAVINGS
In terms of flexibility, Parker said the new technology would enable the brigade commander to choose the exact right aircraft for the mission. The digital cockpit of the Victor model is nearly identical to the Mike model and uses the exact same planning software, so the training for both models is also nearly the same, making training easier for everyone.
Parker said that, by the Army owning the software that’s programmed into the helicopter, the near- and long-term cost savings are in the millions. “When the software changes or needs to be upgraded, the Army doesn’t have to pay someone hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars to change it like we do now with the Apache and Chinook [helicopters]. We can make these changes ourselves internally. That’s the first step into modular open system architecture [MOSA], so that’s a huge advantage. And best of all, we’re making an old aircraft new again, to give this [UH-60L] airframe another 10, 20, 30 years of use in the Army.”
“So taking a Black Hawk and making it a UH-60V is millions of dollars cheaper than buying a brand new UH-60M model helicopter, and that savings can be used for funding the Army’s 31+4 programs which, in our case, is the Future Vertical Lift program,” he said.
In another cost-saving initiative, all of the upgrades are being done at the Corpus Christi Army Depot rather than turning to industry for modernization work. According to Lt. Col. Kenneth Ferguson, managing director for aircraft operations at the depot, modernizing the Black Hawk is only a part of what they do at the Corpus Christi facility.
He said that the depot, which is mainly a helicopter, component and repair manufacturing facility, is broken down into three prime directorates—business, components and aircraft operations. On the aircraft operations side, which Ferguson oversees, there is the aircraft production team that builds the UH-60V; the flight test section, where all aircraft repaired or built at the depot is tested; and the on-condition maintenance—inspection of an item to see if it is fit or unfit—team that repairs all of the crash or battle damaged aircraft that come in from the field that need to be fixed and sent back out again. “The Black Hawk upgrade program is “the bridge we need at the time we need it,” he said.
THE FRAMEWORK FOR FUTURE VERTICAL LIFT
According to Ferguson, the Black Hawk is the most numerous aircraft in the force, and since the Army wasn’t able to acquire the UH-60Ms fast enough to completely fill the modernization gap before future vertical lift coming on, this created an aircraft modernization capabilities gap primarily in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves.
“Replacing Limas with Victors will help modernize our force prior to the fielding of the first vertical lift aircraft, which will be a fully modern, fully digital open architecture aircraft,” he said. “The software on the Victor is slightly better than what we have in the Mike. The Victor’s technology will help bridge the gap between the current fleet and future vertical lift. With the addition of future vertical lift, it will be fully coupled so that it can be flown by a pilot or flown simply by the computer. Without pilot interaction. And so it’ll be a step further. This is a great middle step that enables us to go full digital. So if we get into a heavy conflict, we’ve got commonality across the force in how we can employ these aircraft. The 60V program does it quick, and it does it cheap.”
With the cost of a UH60-V being significantly less than a UH-60M, he said “The Army has already paid for the Limas, so that’s part of the cost savings, but it also extends the life of that Lima that would have to be phased out due to aging out the airframes.”
SETTING CONDITIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Parker said there are many other cost-saving initiatives conducted at the Corpus Christi Army Depot that set up conditions for the future, including the use of composites. “I believe the future for the vertical lift aircraft will require CCAD to be fully composite capable. So we’re setting the conditions now, knowing that in 10-12 years we’re going to start to get the first components from the FVL programs and then in another 20-30 years, depending on the life of the FVL programs, we’re going to start to do re-capitalization work on the Future Vertical Lift program assets—future attack reconnaissance aircraft, future long-range assault aircraft, future unmanned aerial systems and future tactical unmanned aerial systems.”
Using an open system architecture approach means the software design is not dependent on proprietary systems, making it easier to add or swap components and facilitate faster future upgrades. “It’s the proof of principle for the [modular open system architecture] that we’re using. So that’s the data and the chips and the software in the aircraft. That’s the first step in helping to lead to the modernization of the entire fleet. So it’s going to be the first use of Army-owned software, Army-developed software, and it’s going to be the first step to ensure that MOSA is able to come online.”
FRESH OFF THE ASSEMBLY LINE
Parker said the upgrade project began in 2016, but really got going in 2018 when they inducted the first UH-60L to be converted to a UH-60V at Corpus Christi. The first six UH-60Vs were completed in the spring of 2021, and the next 32 should be out the door by this fiscal year. He said that, from start to finish, the process to completely strip a UH-60L helicopter down, upgrade it to a UH-60V, then paint, complete and deliver the aircraft today takes about 400 to 430 days.
“We’re starting to move more quickly with production now. The goal is to convert a total of 760 UH-60Ls to UH-60Vs in the next few years—30 per year at first, then that will increase to 48 per year until all 760 become part of the UH-60 fleet. “It’s like an assembly line process, without a track,” he said of the upgrade process. “We tear it down to its skin, ribs and bones, inspect it all and make any fixes that are needed so it’s essentially a brand new airframe from the bones to the skin. Then we put it back together with 20 miles of brand new wires, new computers and new displays and we get it going.”
Parker said a major perk is that the next generation of aircraft won’t be tied solely to one company. The Army can compete the part and find where a vendor can get it the cheapest. He said a good way to describe it is it’s like taking your phone and putting whatever apps you want on it, instead of buying all of those apps from Sikorsky. “Similar to the app store, the Army is going to require ‘the app’ be interfaced that way so the people making the part have to make sure it communicates that way. It’s very plug and play.”
“The crews that have flown it so far are huge fans of it. It’s like getting a new car. It has the new helicopter smell and it works very, very well. They love it.” Parker said. “They like what it can do and want more of them, and they want it faster. Which is why we had to decrease our production time from 600 days last year, to as quick as 330, but in the range of 330 to 400 in the next few years. We’ve got to go faster to support the warfighter.”
Ferguson said that digital is the future and gone are the days when a panel of analog dials gauged airspeed, altitude and position, while a handheld slide rule was used to calculate things like time, windage and fuel, and pre-mission planning and navigation were penciled into a paper map book, glued, folded together and pages were flipped while in flight—all occurring simultaneously in the cockpit, while the crew managed the flight mission.
“I think that this is a timely extension of a true and trusted aircraft, modernizing it digitally in order to fill a critical capability gap at the right time and for the right price,” Ferguson said. “This is a good thing for Corpus Christi Army Depot, for sure. We’ve got something that we’re working on that will immediately enhance national defense and enhance the safety and wellbeing of our aviators and the infantry men and other Soldiers that ride in these aircraft,” he said. “There’s a sense of real excitement and purpose here at the depot, and we understand that this is a critical contribution to the force and the depot is extremely privileged to be a part of this program.”
For more information go to https://www.ccad.army.mil/.
CHERYL MARINO provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a writer and editor for Network Runners, Inc. and Army AL&T magazine. She holds a B.A. in communications from Seton Hall University, and has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience in both the government and commercial sectors. In addition to corporate communications, she is a feature writer and photojournalist for a biannual New Jersey travel magazine.