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Inside ‘The home of the Apache’


As a new journalist to the aviation industry I had been told by colleagues that trade shows and events are one of the perks of the job – if a little frantic at times. Nonetheless it was a great surprise to be given the chance to visit Boeing’s Mesa site.

This young grasshopper has much to learn about helicopters but if earning my stripes means shooting off to Arizona in December then sign me up. The brief in a nutshell was to spend four days at ‘The home of the Apache’.


Production rates of the type are set to spike as Boeing look to capitalise on customer interest. The manufacturer even suggested, during the trip, that production figures of up to 100 Apache AH-64E per year by 2021 are a realistic target. The UK – the AH-64E’s second largest operator – will also receive their first delivery of the aircraft in June 2020, with service entry expected to occur two years later.

Beyond the formal newsworthy discussions held with senior executives, it was amazing to see the Apache flight line and production facility up close. When you get a chance to see the number of people involved in designing and producing the aircraft it’s an incredible sight to behold.

It’s almost akin to watching the end credits of a film roll by in the sense that you can appreciate how many different departments and variety of skill sets are required in order for the final product to be assembled.

The production warehouse consists of a 12 point assembly with eight spots reserved for individual Apache components to be added as required. Engineers are provided with their tools each morning, which are set out for them by their respective support teams.

The idea is that this quickens up the production process and means the job at hand can happen without delay. Short of the Apache’s fuselage which is produced in Asia and its composite blades which are assembled in a neighbouring building, the entire interior and exterior of the aircraft is assembled on site.


Of course, being given privileged access to the facility itself, awakens an inner nerd and more than anything the AVgeek hashtag for which the aviation Twittersphere prides itself on, resonated immediately.

The opportunity to try an Apache E simulator first-hand was one that proved word associations between helicopters and cool are legitimate and should always be encouraged.

Having been airborne for a mere minute at most, I crashed, spinning hopelessly into a computer generated wood. Safe to assume I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon.

That said, the technology involved in the simulator is much more interesting than my faulty flight. The simulator itself is encased in a futuristic white pod and as you steer the flight deck moves simultaneously meaning those on the side-lines also feel like they are moving, depending on the ‘pilot’s’ movements.


Aside from everything that happened at the Mesa site, the highlight of the trip was most definitely listening to pilot Rich Lee talk in great detail about picking up Diana Ross (of The Supremes fame) from the Arizona, Sun Devil Stadium, during the 1996 Super Bowl halftime show.

Lee is a highly respected figure within the aviation industry having completed countless test and classified flights but even for a man of his experience the Super Bowl stunt ended up being a remarkable event and one that so nearly didn’t happen.

To begin with Lee recalled that the very idea of flying a helicopter into a stadium full of people is, to say the least, not a brilliant idea from a health and safety point of view. Planning and preparation was exhaustive with every stakeholder involved having to be satisfied that their interests were being protected.

Those parties included the operator, the NFL, their events management company, local emergency services, federal aviation authorities and of course, Diana Ross.

Every possible eventuality had to be covered too, including the possibility of engine failure, security threats relating to what to do in the event of a sniper or bomb attack and how to avoid items being thrown from the crowd, as well as ensuring smoke from flares during halftime wouldn’t effect visibility.

Running alongside all of this air traffic control would have to inform all operators that no flights could pass through the surrounding area of the stadium during Lee’s flight. All of this was eventually co-ordinated successfully.

At one point during proceedings cushions were thrown from stadium seats to test if objects thrown from the crowd would inhibit the flight! Lee would also go on to entrust his teenage son to manage ground operations on the basis that he was used to travelling with his father to air shows and was well versed in planning for trade shows and marquee aviation events.


When the moment finally arrived to fly into the stadium, two key incidents occurred that almost led to the mission being aborted. In the first instance, flight tests had been conducted with only an empty stadium, now as Lee entered, at the point of descending, his collective pitch or pressure usually exerted to let the helicopter descend smoothly made no impact because of the heat created by a stadium full of 70,000 people.

Additionally, thousands of camera flashes went off as soon as the helicopter got to the stadium. ‘It felt like I was inside a giant diamond,’ Lee explained.

To his great relief, as he continued on his set course, the middle of the stadium produced a corridor of cold air which eventually allowed Lee to land as planned. In the end, without being able to see his landing spot, Lee had touched down four inches from where he was expected to.

Just to add to the script and in a perfect moment of synchronicity between pilot and star attraction, Diana Ross sang ‘I will survive’ before receiving her escort from the stadium.

On that note, I’ll depart the stage too.

Dubai Airshow 2017: Space race heats up


As temperatures in the Middle East soar, the UAE and Boeing have further turned up the heat this week at the Dubai Airshow, courtesy of their mission to mars programmes.

Both projects were displayed at the DWC and have captured the imagination of attendees.

The UAE’s (Emirates) strategy to conquer Mars is something of a high-wire act which – according to the company’s website – will depend on precision and the ability of its aptly named Hope aircraft to be ready for launch when the alignment of the Earth and Mars’ respective orbits are closest together.

Such an occurrence happens once every two years, meaning that Hope has a particularly small launch window from which to make its maiden voyage in July 2020.


The expectation thereafter is that Hope will arrive on Mars in 2021. Four years of scientific observation are provisionally planned after arrival.

Before then the aircraft is expected to spend approximately 200 days on its journey from Earth to Mars – reaching a cruising speed of 126,000Km/h.


Not to be outdone, Boeing is supporting NASA to ready itself for a similar expedition, with the collaborative project being marketed with echoes of Neil Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’ moon landing speech.

‘Today’s children will be the first explorers of our neighboring planet with help from Boeing technology to discover ground humans have yet to see.’

Boeing is a key collaborator on NASA’s Space Launch System – a project that seeks to create ‘robust human space exploration from the Moon to Mars.’ Essential to the project is their Deep Space Gateway, a habitable structure near the moon.


In April this year, Pete McGrath, director of global sales and marketing for Boeing’s space exploration division, outlined that the Deep Space Gateway was in its infancy. ‘The ability to simultaneously launch humans and cargo on SLS would allow us to assemble the gateway in four launches in the early 2020s.’

Boeing envision the Gateway as the core base from which missions to Mars can be launched and similar in style to the docking system successfully used by NASA’s International Space Station for its commercial operations.


‘The transport vehicle would be equipped with a habitat specifically designed to protect passengers from deep space’s harsh environment…’ Boeing said in a company statement.

Other than an estimate of completion of the Deep Space Gateway itself, no firm timeframe has been publicised by Boeing or NASA in relation to when a voyage to Mars can be expected.

For more stories from the Dubai Airshow this week please see our free news website with videos too.

BHA chair sets sights on European defence axis

SMF12-G-233945-Apache AH 64E ground to air shoot in the Arizona

Picking over the bones of the UK government’s recent bickering with Boeing, Sir Chris Coville, chair of the British Helicopter Association, makes one thing very clear: the issuing of threats to potentially end helicopter defence contracts are not in the least credible.

He’s unmoved and less than convinced the episode will have any lasting impact on current business arrangements between the two parties.

‘I think you should only issue a threat if you’re prepared to carry it out and in this case, neither side can honestly say they’re prepared to cut business ties with the other,’ he said.

To recap, relations between the opposing sides began to sour following the US Department of Commerce’s decision to place a preliminary 219% trade tariff on Bombardier.

That decision, as Shephard reported, centered on Bombardier’s 2016 deal with Delta Air Lines, as Boeing’s complaint alleged such a deal was improper and made possible by virtue of Canadian government subsidies.

Since the original ruling, the UK government has criticised Boeing for its role in the affair, holding the company accountable for instigating proceedings in order to push construction costs of C-series aircraft to $61 million per aircraft, a figure three times higher than Delta received them for.

Adding to the UK government’s opposition is the fact that 1,000 jobs at Bombardier’s Belfast base would be jeopardised in the event that the tariff was imposed long-term.


Only last year the UK completed a $2.9 billion deal for the manufacturer to deliver 50 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to bolster UK defence capabilities.

Beyond the ramifications of any future problems between Boeing and the UK government, however, Coville is insistent that the more immediate concern for the BHA is overcoming a distinct lack of research and development domestically.

‘We must sustain a design and development capability of combat aircraft,’ he explains.

‘One of the problems we are currently having after following the [Lockheed Martin] F-35B route is that although we are going to build 15% of the global requirement, we are doing it the same way French and Japanese cars are made in the UK. In other words, the parts arrive and we put them together.’

He sees an inherent problem to working this way – falling victim to market forces.

The assembly of parts can be carried out anywhere and once another plant lowers its prices, there’s very little to stop contractors moving their business to a new base.

‘Think of it like building cars in Detroit. Once it becomes too expensive to do so you move production to Mexico City,’ Coville says.


‘When that becomes too expensive you move again to Caracas and gradually – as happened in Detroit – you’re eventually at the bottom of the pile and out of business.’

The logic seems watertight. Leave yourself without the capacity to design products independently and sooner rather than later, you’ll be left treading water.

It’s for this reason as well as developing sustainable revenue streams that he wants to establish a meaningful dialogue with France and Germany, who he sees as the leaders in European attack aircraft platforms.

Even within the context of Brexit – the UK’s pending withdrawal from the EU – he envisions a venture where the UK can ally with France and Germany to create a collaboration of mutual benefit.

‘I don’t see why a working partnership couldn’t be successful post-Brexit. Mainly because we have gone down the F-35 route, the French have turned to Germany and together they will probably be developing some kind of first-class platform in the future,’ he explains.

F-35 at FIDAE

‘I see no reason why the UK shouldn’t be part of that. The ability to make things with partners is essential – ideally with European partners – otherwise, you are overwhelmed by the United States and making sure those capabilities have an attraction to the export market.’

Cynics will assume such an approach to be a precocious one – as political and economic links between the UK and the rest of Europe remain frosty at best – but the astute judgment of the BHA in determining that conventional and current strategies are not always having desired outcomes, clearly shows they are attempting to reshape the defence helicopter agenda through creativity and guile.

The world according to Shephard: Week 43

Pick of the week

While all eyes have been fixed upon North Korea, Uldduz Larki looks into NATO’s decision to host its most recent ballistic missile defence exercise in the Atlantic theatre, a sign that Russian deterrence remains a strategic priority. Read more of Uldduz’s report on the alliance’s inaugural Formidable Shield exercise here.

The bumpy road to agreement

After a series of lengthy pauses in the development of Germany and Israel’s submarine programme, the two nations moved a step closer to agreeing the purchase of three new submarines.

The vessels, which will be supplied by TKMS will replace Israel’s three Dolphin-class diesel electric submarines. Germany’s TKMS is also hopeful of future sales within Europe as the country has agreed to partner with Norway and has received similar interest from Italy.


Meanwhile details are emerging about the Franco-British collaboration on a Future Combat Air System as the programme readies for the transition from planning to development.

Alongside work on the Anglo-French unmanned combat demonstrator is an investigation of open-system mission architecture. The latest announcement means that high-level concepts are now in the process of being turned into detailed requirement sets.

Elsewhere, Scott Gourley and Richard Thomas were at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vagas this week. Find all of the latest news from the show floor online

Finally, Boeing has reaffirmed its commitment to the UK despite souring relations with the government following the US Department of Commerce’s decision to place a preliminary 219% trade tariff on Bombardier. In a conversation with Shephard a Boeing spokesperson was keen to downplay any tension between the two parties following a number of attacks on the company from UK politicians.

Maritime insecurity

The future of the UK’s amphibious capabilities looks increasingly uncertain as the defence minister suggested it may no longer be a strategic priority.

Speaking at a meeting of the UK’s defence committee, Michael Fallon denied that the MoD had entered into conversations with Brazil and Chile over a potential sale of the HMS Albion and Bulwark which would put UK amphibious capabilities in jeopardy. MPs voiced their concerns that the MoD’s budget cuts are placing the UK’s security at risk.


Saab’s Q3 results indicate the Swedish company expects to gain from increasing submarine activity in Europe and Asia. Reporting a 10% growth in sales over the first six months of 2017, the company is reaping the rewards of rising European and international defence spending.

Russia continues to bolster its muscle on the sea’s surface, ordering four Project 21980 Granchanok patrol boats. The main use of the boats will be to provide security to the Kerch Strait Bridge, currently under construction, which will eventually connect Crimea with mainland Russia.


New-generation land warfare has arrived

Russia’s military investment are not just ocean bound as it appears Russian Land Forces units will be trialling the new-generation assault rifles of Kalashnikov dubbed AK-12 and AK-15. The new assault rifles have undergone testing within the frame of the Ratnik future soldier programme which will deliver new-generation high performance personal equipment to a range of Russian forces.

Following a significant boost to its defence budget, Romania continues to invest in modernising its land forces and has signed a MoI for the licenced manufacture of the Piranha IFV, a de facto act of selection of the new-generation wheeled IFV. Talks will take place on the firm delivery contract for an order of 227 Piranha Vs with an 8×8 wheel drive formula.


Helicopters bought and sold

Remaining in Eastern Europe, the Czech Air Force is expected to receive 12 Bell Helicopter UH-1Y Venoms from the US DoD as part of a $575 million FMS deal. The aircraft are to be reserved for domestic service missions. The announcement suggests the current stock of Mi-8/17s and Mi-24/35s will most likely be retired.

This week Gordon Arthur reported that US Army Apaches stationed in South Korea will hook up with the General Atomics Grey Eagle MALE UAVs over the coming years, as well as boost their cooperation with the new Apaches of the Republic of Korea Army. Read more about Gordon’s visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek here.


While attention turns to Future Vertical Lift as the US Army’s next-generation of aircraft, the AH-64 Apache remains a key platform to the service’s fleet and remains integral to Boeing’s future international sales. With a prospective sale of six Apaches to the Indian Army in the works, the AH-64E is projected to remain in service until at least 2016.




Procurement, production and progress

Heavy lift programmes such as Sikorsky’s CH-53K and Bell-Boeing’s multi-year V-22 project with the US DoD are ticking along, and the companies are optimistic that as progress continues, international interest in the platforms will grow.

As the CH-53K King Stallion enters production, company officials are confident that the USMC Heavy Lift Replacement Program is on track. With initial operating capability scheduled to be achieved by the end of 2019, the aircraft has now exceeded 450 test flight hours.


At the critical design review stage of the programme, the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation FY2016 annual report noted that high temperature issues within the number two engine bay had caused delays. In February, Sikorsky confirmed that measures had been put in place to overcome overheating.

‘[Regarding] the heat on the engine we have already taken two models that have shown that heat dissipating. We’ve got two other designs that are looking at improving it even more,’ Sikorsky’s president Dan Schultz told me, when asked if this issue had any further ramifications for testing points.

The CH-53K King Stallion

‘Right now, we’re back in flight and we are not seeing [the engines] as hot as they were in the beginning. All aircraft that have the third engine have a heat area back there and we’ve been working on that with NAVAIR. So, that is not one of our risk areas.’

Discussions with the German government are currently focused on pricing of a potential order for 41 CH-53K helicopters to replace the incumbent CH-53G variant. Schultz argued that when Germany makes its decision, the company will be ready, with the King Stallion expected to be in full production by that point.

Angel Thunder 2015: German Air Force participates in MASCAL Exercise

One of the key developments of the K-model is the size of the back end of the aircraft, which is 30cm wider than its predecessor, the Super Stallion, at the request of the USMC. ‘When you think of the back end of a 53K, forget about all the best flight avionics or best performance – all those kinds of things – the back end is 12in wider… that’s a big difference to the guys on the ground,’ Shultz said.

Pitching itself further as an international military supplier, Bell Helicopter has highlighted imminent deliveries of its offerings across Asia. The company will see the first V-22 deliveries to Japan in September/October this year, while the AH-1Z Viper will start to be delivered to Pakistan in earnest soon.

Up, Up, and away

Rich Harris, VP of international military sales at Bell, explained to journalists at the Paris Air Show that it was the first FMS of the AH-1 attack helicopter in 20 years. The Pakistan Army will take receipt of the first three aircraft this year. While little timeline detail was provided, Harris did confirm that these were currently being finished on the assembly line in Amarillo, Texas.

Placed in 2015, the order for 12 Vipers will see the remaining nine delivered in 2018. At this stage, while it has not been decided whether delivery will be in batches of three or more, the final units will be received by Pakistan 18 months from now, Harris confirmed at the show in June.

Any Time. Any Place.

The V-22 programme has so far seen 295 of 360 aircraft delivered to the USMC. In total, 347 V-22s have been delivered, including 52 in the USAF CV configuration. The aircraft has surpassed more than 350,000 flight hours.

In a plan announced in mid-2015 the USAF will deploy three CV-22 Ospreys to Japan in the second half of this year, with seven more scheduled to arrive by 2021.

With the company looking to accelerate efforts to promote its military portfolio outside of the US the prospect of a NATO sharing concept could stretch the reach of the OEM’s military aircraft. Harris explained that at this stage Bell is excited about this opportunity with a prospective joint asset such as the V-22.

For more on military helicopter procurement, platform production and progress with current programmes see the July-August edition of DH.

Arizona Apache: Wired

AH-64 and AH-6I


It is my first time visiting the Boeing team at Mesa, Arizona and one of my first impressions is quite naturally the impact of the heat and the dry, desert conditions.

The sand and dust have given me a real taste of the AH-64‘s combat readiness for those overseas deployments, with particular regards to the US Army stationing in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

And as a participant in the overhead demonstration, I was able to see first-hand the hover capabilities; the composite main rotor blades, according to company literature, provide greater hover out of ground effect capability.

Walking into the production facility at Mesa, we were greeted firstly by the skeletal airframes evolving into a completed E-model of the AH-64.

Since the beginning of the Apache with the A-model, Boeing has been manufacturing the aircraft for more than three decades.

Interestingly, there was two different versions on display and they were easily distinguished by two designation types.

The new build aircraft are labelled as AK –  these are completely new models with new components. On the other side, the aircraft labelled as NM are new but with 700 reused reports.

Currently, the facility builds five Apaches per month, once they have been received from Boeing’s Alabama plant in Huntsville.

From the work in Alabama to the end of the line in Arizona, the whole aircraft process can take up to one year.

The hangar also has an assembly line dedicated to the AH-6i.

Looking at the interior of one AH-64 E-model, it is hard not to notice the orange wiring present on the aircraft. This is a form of wire protection to ensure no foreign objects interact with the goods.

One of the differences between the D and E model of the Apache is the number of wires.

Significantly, the D-model had 11 eleven miles of wiring, although the E-model has now been reduced to nine miles.

Splice junctions are no longer being used by the Boeing manufacturing team, and this helps with installation as well as during missions because it is easier to remedy in the field through point-to-point connections.

Speaking of wired, it would not be a Boeing pre-Farnborough press trip without copious amounts of coffee, early morning wake-up calls and lots of things to see and do. So, onwards to Florida – the Poseidon awaits.

Burying your bad KC-46 news

Industry analysts have expected for quite some time now that the US Air Force’s next-generation aerial refueller, the KC-46A ‘Pegasus’, would likely miss its intended delivery date of August 2017 due to ongoing, and numerous, technical glitches with the aircraft.

Those predictions were confirmed on 27 May when the USAF and Boeing both released statements saying that the delivery of the first 18 aircraft (known as Required Assets Available, or RAA, in acquistion speak), would now be delayed until January 2018, five months later than planned.

A Milestone C decision, which green lights a low-rate production contract, has also been pushed to the right with a decision now expected this August. That’s largely thanks to issues with higher than expected ‘axial loads’ on the KC-46A’s boom when refuelling the C-17A transport, which has delayed other receiver demonstrations including with the A-10.

In addition, due to ongoing certification issues, when the aircraft are eventually delivered they will be missing their wing aerial-refuelling pods (WARPs).

Overall, pretty terrible news for a programme that was meant to be a relatively straightforward ‘off-the-shelf’ procurement to replace ageing KC-135 tankers. Even worse for the air force, it comes the same week that officials admitted that another major USAF programme, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is facing yet more delays.

In releasing the information about the KC-46A delay, it was a classic case of burying bad news. The statements were released just before Memorial Day in the US and a Spring Bank Holiday in the UK so most of Europe had already clocked off, Asia was asleep and many in the US had probably finished early to take advantage of a long weekend.

It didn’t get past a lot of the specialist journalists though, and some of the wire reporters as well. We have a story on the Shephard website here, along with several other analysis pieces on the programme.

Ultimately, the announcement of the delay is not surprising.

Several journalists, including myself, have been following the programme for quite some time and when we’ve questioned both USAF and Boeing officials, they’ve assured us that the programme was still on track, despite it becoming glaringly obvious that the programme had some serious problems.

KC-46A full-size

My last interaction with Boeing was March, where the company told me that it ‘still expect[ed] to meet the August 2017 RAA date’ and that it was ‘taking the right steps to fulfill our commitment to the Air Force’. Since then, both the USAF and Boeing have clearly come to accept that this was just too optimistic.

Admittedly, the programme has been hit with some rotten luck. WARPs, that Boeing thought would be quick to qualify as the technology is relatively mature, actually had design flaws meaning their qualification was delayed three years. Three years!

Just before the maiden flight of the first full-up KC-46A, a mislabeled fuel substitute provided by a third-party supplier was poured into the refuelling system. It turned out to be a highly-corrosive industrial cleaning fluid that damaged several key systems. Parts had to be harvested from another developmental aircraft, adding yet more delays.

Design flaws have also plagued the aircraft with the company having to redesign the aircraft’s wiring and fuel systems, yet again adding months of delays on the programme.

The extent to which Boeing was behind on the programme was laid out by the government accountability office (GAO) in a report released April, which stated that in January 2016 alone, Boeing had achieved only 7 out of 55 test activities that had been scheduled on the programme.

Credit to Boeing, all four test aircraft are now flying and contributing to developmental testing and even though an LRIP contract hasn’t been signed, the first production aircraft are being built (a risky strategy, maybe?).

The first tanker is now expected to be delivered to the USAF in August 2017, at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, the first formal training unit location. The question is whether Boeing can still meet this extended delivery date, so the pressure really is on.

As several analysts pointed out to me earlier this year, the USAF can mitigate the operational costs of KC-46A delays by running its KC-135 aircraft for a little longer. The longer-term damage may be for Boeing, which has been impacted financially by several charges on the fixed-price contract (it has to pay for delays and cost overruns) and a damaged reputation for delivering late.

Wayne Plucker, aerospace and defense director at consultancy Frost & Sullivan told me that: ‘[Boeing] have been in air force procurement’s dog house for some time due to mistakes [and] while Boeing still has a lot of defence work, they are not winning new major programmes and their older programmes are ending.’

‘There is a good chance that programme performance on the KC-46 program affected the decision on the B-21 [bomber],’ he added, referring to another major USAF programme.

In the words of the man responsible for the KC-46A tanker, Brig Gen Duke Richardson, ‘no major procurement program is without challenges’. That’s true, but the Pegasus programme has had several instances where delays could have been avoided and were not the inevitable process of developing a clean-sheet design.

It will be interesting to see how the Air Force’s relationship with Boeing progresses in the future and how its defence business is affected by this programme going forward.

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