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Pilots demonstrate how the new Chinook operates.
HENRY J. HOLCOMB/Inquirer staff
Pilots demonstrate how the new Chinook operates.
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New look Chinook

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - It was 104 degrees on the Tarmac alongside the big helicopter.

"Compared to what our friends in Baghdad are feeling, this is cool," said Army pilot David J. Watson, during the safety briefing for a flight designed to show that the new Chinook helicopter is not the same old bird that soldiers flew in Vietnam.

Boeing and Philadelphia, where the $30 million aircraft is built, have a lot riding on proving this point.

Over the next hour or so the twin-rotor helicopter, a familiar sight for four decades of war and disaster relief, wound its way down valleys of this Army reservation on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, at times reaching 140 m.p.h., with the hot breath of August blasting through its open doors.

On the outside the new Chinook looks like the old war bird that delivered troops, ammunition, food, fuel and water to steamy remote jungles in Vietnam. But inside it is a glimpse into the future.

Army and Boeing brass say Chinooks will keep hoisting heavy loads for military and civilian customers until well beyond 2030.

Peering over Army pilot Tom Miskowiec's shoulder as the big Chinook zigged and zagged down valleys and popped up over ridges, with trees seeming close enough to touch, one could see accurate images of the terrain just ahead on the flat-screen video displays.

"We could fly without looking out the window, but we won't today," Watson quipped before takeoff.

A secret "special operations" version of the Chinook, with much larger fuel tanks for long-range flights deep into hostile territory, has even more sophisticated terrain-following digital flight controls.

"It makes a good pilot a better pilot," said Watson, who has flown Chinooks since 1999 and is co-pilot on this trip. "Its systems can compensate for a gust of wind without us even knowing about it."

The flight was part of an Army event in which the new model, the CH47F, was declared fit for battle and assigned to an Army airborne unit at Fort Campbell.

Boeing has high hopes that this new model will open vast new markets for the Chinook. It used this week's "equipping ceremony," in which the new model was issued to Bravo Company, Seventh Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, to draw wider attention to what the new Chinook can do.

This was part of the fierce battle between the aerospace giant and Lockheed Martin Corp. over a $10 billion order for 141 new search-and-rescue helicopters. The Air Force selected the Chinook for the search-and-rescue contract over Lockheed's US101 helicopter, which earlier won the competition to become the next presidential helicopter, Marine One.

Lockheed is challenging the Air Force decision.

Members of the influential aviation and military press corps were flown here from Washington aboard a Boeing Business Jet, a luxury version of the 737 airliner, to hear Army pilots and maintenance sergeants rave about the new Chinook.

The Chinook has long been able to transport humvees and other heavy equipment in a sling attached to its belly. Its cabin can hold up to 44 passengers or a small hospital emergency room. Vehicles, tanks of fuel and water, crates of food and ammunition are loaded through a massive ramp in the rear.

The new model lifts more, costs less, and performs more precisely in tight and hostile situations, those who fly it say. And it can pick up and deliver even where it cannot land, as the Army demonstrated on the flight this week.

After dropping off reporters and photographers in a nearby field, where they could observe the feat, the Chinook quickly planted its rear landing gear on a lake-side ridge, where its ramp could discharge troops and supplies. For several minutes, its precise digital controls held a steady hover, with its front section over water, stirring up only modest spray.

Several times the big helicopter stopped and hovered in place for a long time, staying so steady it seemed attached to the ground.

The ride was smoother than in Chinooks of a decade ago because, Miskowiec said, attributing the improvement to more precise digital flight and engine controls and a stronger airframe.

Boeing executives said in interviews that winning the Air Force contract would mean a major expansion of Boeing's rotorcraft headquarters near the Philadelphia International Airport, in Delaware County. More than 4,500 already work at the sprawling facility, designing and building Chinooks and the fuselages of the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.

The new model allow much more precise flying, even when weather or an enemy is hostile. "It makes a good pilot a better pilot," Watson said.

Another Army Chinook pilot interviewed earlier, Ryan Dechent, described how the new systems let him plan flights on a laptop computer, then transfer them directly to the aircraft, eliminating errors from manual entry.

Many of the new "F" models are completely rebuilt earlier models. Both new and upgraded Chinooks have an entirely new and stiffer airframe. Large sections are milled as one piece instead of riveting many parts together.

On old models, all those rivets have to be inspected, and that takes time, said Staff Sgt. Edward J. Lee, who has been helping maintain the new Chinooks during testing.

"When the aircraft picks up a heavy load, it flexes. That wears out the joints" of older models, he said.

The success celebrated here this week began with Boeing's decision in 2003 to adopt lean manufacturing practices, pioneered by Henry Ford and refined by Toyota and others.

Jack Dougherty, Boeing's Chinook program manager, said that investment paid off, reducing the cost of a Chinook from $42 million to $30 million.

The change is evident just walking through the plant. Lighting is brighter, everything is clearly labeled, supplies and tools are stored closer to where they are needed.

And the big Chinooks are now assembled from modules produced by Boeing plants or subcontractors elsewhere, an approach used for other Boeing aircraft and at the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard.

Each Chinook moves down the line every seven days.

"That's called pacing, or pulsing the work," Dougherty said. Workers know if they don't finish a task, they'll have to chase it to the next station while also working on the one that just arrived."

It now takes 36 months to build a new Chinook, and Dougherty said that was being reduced to 28 months. It would help if Congress would order five years worth of production, instead of year by year. This would enable subcontractors to plan better, get better prices and respond faster, he said.

The Chinook is based on tandem-rotor technology developed by the Philadelphia helicopter pioneer Frank N. Piasecki, president and chairman of Piasecki Aircraft Corp., of Essington, Delaware County.

A pair of jet engines turns both rotors in tandem. If one engine fails, both rotors keep turning. The military first used it in 1962 to transport nuclear missiles, and it continues to evolve. A lower maintenance rotor system and a new lift-increasing blade are being developed now, said Ken Eland, Boeing's CH-47F program manager.

No decision has been made on when the new Chinooks will go overseas. For now the models will fly mostly over training bases, like the one here, doing drills in makeshift villages made to look like Iraq and Afghanistan, where temperatures soar, as Watson said, and make August here seem cool.

 


Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com.

 

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