The U.S. Army doctrine of moving soldiers quickly into and out of enemy territory by air was a staple of Vietnam, which made the Bell UH-1 an emblem of the Helicopter War.
With 40 years of service — much of it in combat — the H-60 Black Hawk has achieved similar status as an ever-present aircraft delivering troops, rescuing wounded soldiers and hovering over U.S. operations in post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Since its introduction to service in 1978, Sikorsky has churned out more than 4,000 H-60 airframes in a variety of configurations. Now owned by Lockheed Martin, the company built 600 A-model Black Hawks, 800 UH-60Ls and 1,200 UH-Ms outfitted with a modern glass cockpit.
The M-model is powered by twin T700-GE-701D engines, has new wide-chord composite blades and is more survivable with an enhanced laser warning system (AVR2B), upturned exhaust system and the common missile warning system (CMWS).
“One of the most impressive aspects of it is that the basic aircraft has been maintained,” said Chris Dowse, Sikorsky’s director of Army programs. “The engines have been improved over the years. The rotor system has improved. The drive train has improved. We took what worked on the original aircraft and we have grown these pieces and parts around it to maintain what made the Black Hawk successful way back when, when it won the Army competition.”
With a 9,000-pound payload and seating for 14 in its 396-cubic-foot cabin, the H-60 hit a sweet spot for the U.S. Army’s medium-lift requirements and is now used worldwide for humanitarian relief, combat search and rescue, military utility, firefighting, VIP transport and other missions. As U.S. and foreign customers have pushed the limits of the H-60’s capability, its roles and missions have also expanded. One pilot claims to have crammed more than 30 people into the back of a Black Hawk.
Beginning with the UH-60A, the Army has upgraded a portion of its fleet of 2,135 Black Hawks to the current M-model. With 10 million flight hours under its belt, the Army is less than halfway through the H-60’s projected service life. Plans are for it to stay in service until 2070.
In the Army’s checkered acquisition history, the Black Hawk stands out as an unmitigated success, said Col. Thomas von Eschenbach, director of capability development and integration at the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. The entire U.S. Defense Department benefitted from Army investment in developing the aircraft.
“If you look at it from the perspective of the airframe itself and the acquisition side, it’s an airframe that’s used by all the services,” von Eschenbach told R&WI. “It is the model, in the acquisition world, of how you would want to do this. The Army developed the requirements behind the helicopter. We got exactly what we wanted from it, and the rest of the Department of Defense and other agencies were able to use that Army program … to fit their needs.”
The Army alone uses the UH-60 for general purpose and utility missions, medical evacuation and special operations. The U.S. Navy uses the SH-60 Sea Hawk for maritime fleet security and mine hunting. U.S. Air Force H-60s perform combat search and rescue, and the U.S. Coast Guard uses its own version for counter-narcotics and coastal patrol.
The Army’s acquisition objective for the UH-60 is 2,135 aircraft split between active, reserve and training fleets.
“We have to continue to find the right investments in those, understanding that we’re investing in and prioritizing the future, to balance both buying something new and maintaining the relevancy of the current fleet,” von Eschenbach said.
The Navy’s MH-60R Seahawk performs anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare missions, as well as search and rescue, vertical replenishment, naval surface fire support, logistics support, communications relay, personnel transport and medical evacuation.
The Air Force currently operates the HH-60G Pavehawk combat rescue helicopter. In February, Sikorsky began final assembly of the first HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) replacement for the Pavehawk.
A new “Whiskey” model, which is expected to take its first flight by year-end, is based on the proven technology of the latest Black Hawk model, the UH-60M, an enhanced version of the former UH-60L model. Northrop Grumman in July delivered the first UH-60V into Army limited user testing, a critical milestone leading into production of cockpit retrofit kits to bring old, analogue UH-60L cockpits up to modern, digital standards.
Joe Palumbo, Sikorsky’s chief Black Hawk/S-70 engineer, said the modern H-60 has the same basic bone structure of the H-60A, but has completely different guts. Upgrades to improve ballistic protection, reliability, speed and payload have all been completed, but are basically aimed at achieving the initial requirement for all-around utility, he said.
“They all have the same profile and that’s for one reason, to fit in the C-130,” Palumbo told R&WI. “It’s a very rugged machine. This thing never dies.”
Forty years of engineering tweaks have at least doubled reliability from the A-model, Palumbo said. Where maintainers used to perform major maintenance every 360 flight hours and a more involved teardown every 720 hours, the inspection intervals are now at 480/960, he said.
Nearly half the UH-60’s 40 years of Army service have been spent flying at high altitudes and in hot, dry, sandy conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars also drove requirements for additional survivability equipment, improved avionics and other equipment that added weight to the aircraft.
On average, the Army adds about 50 pounds of gear — survivability equipment, ballistic protection, glass cockpits — to its airframes each year. The improved turbine engine program (ITEP) should allow recovery of some of the payload capacity margin spent on aftermarket systems and weapons, von Eschenbach said.
In 2003, when the Army found itself fighting two wars simultaneously, its helicopters did not have a common missile warning system. Adding that protection against enemy guided munitions, along with flare buckets and eventually infrared countermeasures, saved soldiers’ lives but added significant weight to the aircraft without a corresponding boost in power or lift, von Eschenbach said.
General Electric and Advanced Turbine Engine Company (ATEC), a joint Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney venture, have both submitted the second and final proposals for the next phase of the ITEP development effort.
The Army is expected to make a downselect decision by the end of the year between GE’s T901 and ATEC’s T900 engine offerings to move to the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the program.
Following the scheduled contract decision in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, the Army is expected to move to low-rate production of the new helicopter engines in 2024, according to ATEC.
An optionally piloted Black Hawk should fly by the end of the year, marking the culmination of about a decade of work by Sikorsky, the U.S. Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to automate a full-sized legacy rotorcraft.
“The significant thing about this aircraft is we have now developed a full retrofit kit,” Igor Cherepinsky, chief engineer of autonomy systems at Sikorsky, told R&WI. “Unlike the previous iterations, where they were experiments — they were obviously good experiments, but nevertheless experiments, but this one is a product prototype.”
Sikorsky has taken a conventional UH-60A and installed fly-by-wire flight controls and supervised autonomy that includes degraded visual environment mitigation and other technologies. The aircraft is nearly complete and going through ground check in preparation for flying later this year.
“We are now looking at how we produce this into the fleet in a very short period of time,” he said. “This isn’t an experiment anymore.”
Black Hawks are just as popular with allied governments and militaries as they are in the U.S. Sikorsky in 2007 bought the largest aircraft manufacturing company in Poland precisely to cater to that market, including former Soviet-bloc countries eager to replace their Mi-17s and Mi-24s with the S-70, as the H-60 is designated outside the U.S.
So far, 31 countries fly some version of the S-70, which has been marketed as a performance upgrade to UH-1 Huey operators. Many of those aircraft are built at PZL Mielec in Poland, where foreign customers can order the aircraft without disrupting U.S. Army production at Sikorsky’s shop in Stratford, Connecticut.
“The international market has been really good,” Palumbo said. “We see a market for a lot of the former Russian helicopters. A lot of them are divesting from old Russian equipment and buying Black Hawks. … We are also weaponizing more and more because we’re seeing that our customers are looking for multi-mission aircraft.”
Sikorsky recently demonstrated an integrated weapon system retrofit kit for the aircraft that arms it to the teeth and includes weapon symbology on the cockpit displays, flight-management system and heads-up display.
“We’re putting on pretty much the same type of payload as an Apache, up to 16 hellfire missiles, four stations of rockets per side, 50-cal guns, miniguns,” Palumbo said. “We fired a lot of rockets, a lot of missiles, a lot of bullets at Yuma, Arizona, to prove out the system.”
Three California firefighting agencies have chosen the Black Hawk to battle annual wildfires in the state. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) bought a new S-70 and is reconfiguring it to a Firehawk with a 1,000-gallon belly tank, retractable snorkel, extended landing gear and a rescue hoist. The state plans to buy up to a dozen Firehawks over the next five years.
The fire departments of Los Angeles and Ventura counties also operate versions of the Firehawk.
Dowse said the universal popularity and utility of the H-60 family of aircraft is not an accident, as engineers followed Igor Sikorsky’s original sentiment that helicopters should be a force for good, for helping people. Where a fixed-wing aircraft can fly over and locate a person in need, rotorcraft can stop and pick the person up or deliver aid, Dowse said.
“We have a Black Hawk sitting on a pole out at the entrance to the company for a reason,” he said. “It is quite possibly one of the most successful military aircraft programs, maybe military programs in general, that’s out there.”
“The term Black Hawk I think resonates with all sorts of people,” he added. “Whether or not that’s from [“Black Hawk Down”] or it’s just from the sheer quantity of the aircraft that are out there … it’s one of those things that so many people have a connection to in one form or another, whether it’s being in the military or being helped by the military.”
Correction. This story initially stated the Firehawk carriers a 1,000-pound water tank. It carries a 1,000-gallon water tank. Los Angeles and Ventura counties have recently added Firehawks to their firefighting fleets, but have been operating earlier variants for a number of years. RWI