Marine Corps Hueys hover in tight formation before setting down at Marine Corps Air Station New River in 2012. The Marine Corps has decided to move away from the UH-1N model and plans to hand over as many as 26 Hueys to the Air Force. (Don Bryan/The Daily News via AP)
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WASHINGTON — The Air Force is close to finalizing a plan to extend the life of the UH-1N Huey helicopter for the next decade.
“We’ve authored a master plan that will provide a framework for how to sustain and modernize this aircraft for the next six to ten years,” said Maj. Chris Roness, Helicopter Requirements Branch Chief at Air Force Global Strike Command. “It’s in the final phases of coordination for signatures.”
The plan will lay what improvements can be made to reduce long-running capability gaps with the Huey, among the oldest platforms in the service. Unlike modern aircraft, the Huey is analog, lacking the digital displays that are commonplace on current platforms.
“That plan says we’re going to sustain the fleet, address all our Air Force flight and safety mandates, investigate modest improvements in the capabilities and excess government assets, and we’re going to reduce capability gaps that we’re concerned with,” Roness said.
The majority of Hueys are used for two key missions: providing security at nuclear missile launch sites, and the movement of government officials around the Washington, D.C. area. In case of an attack on the city, the UH-1N fleet would be responsible for moving top officials out of the city and to a safe zone.
The Air Force recently attempted to replace the Huey fleet under the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform (CVLSP). But that program became a victim of a DoD-wide budget squeeze and was killed in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal.
“The challenge is, in a sequester resource challenged environment, there just aren’t enough budgetary resources to provide for a replacement right now,” Roness said. “So we’re sustaining, and we’ll do that with this plan.”
Roness stressed that there is no concrete decision to retire the Huey at the end of the timetable, and that the plan will be updated as time moves on. “It’s not that at the end of 10 years there is a big line in the sand,” he said. “This is us looking forward with what we can see right now.”
While the age and relative simplicity of the Huey means it lacks capabilities modern systems take for granted, Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, believes there is “minimal risk” in keeping the fleet going.
“It’s a robust work horse. With the Huey, what you see is what you get.” Aboulafia said. “It was developed before they started designing things with precise margins, and it was before they started building systems that needed constant care and feeding.”
But the aging platform has been criticized for its lack of modern technology, such as navigational tools needed for flight during adverse weather conditions. To help address capability gaps, the Air Force has already begun movement on three upgrades for the aging rotorcraft.
Cockpits fleetwide will have night vision compatible cockpit lighting installed, which should enhance night-flight capabilities. Flight engineers are also slated to receive crash worthy seats. Both upgrades are scheduled for installation across all Hueys by the beginning of 2015.
A similar timeline also applies to the installation of a helicopter terrain awareness warning system and traffic collision avoidance device into the aircraft. That system should provide the kind of high-level situational awareness data that Huey has lacked since its creation. The tailboom assemblies have also been changed out fleetwide, a project that finished in 2012.
“To us, those are big victories,” Roness said.
One potential boon for the Air Force: the Marine Corps has decided to move away from the UH-1N model and is working out a strategy for handing over as many as 26 Hueys to its sister service.
“We made arrangements to acquire those aircraft, and they’re in the process of getting transferred over to the Air Force right now,” Roness said, before cautioning that a delivery date is cloudy, due in part to delays caused by sequestration. It is also unclear whether the service will beef up the number of active Hueys or keep the majority in reserve.
“Right now our goal is to obtain the aircraft and store them, then let the Air Force decide on way forward” with deciding how and where to deploy them, he added.
The Air Force has previously taken possession of three Marine Corps Hueys, used to replace a trio of Air Force models lost over the last five years. Those three are currently going through a recapitalization process.