Warplanes: Huey Made In Ukraine


May 7, 2021: In 2021 Ukraine began building American UH-1 (Huey) helicopters, under license, in the state-owned Odessa Aviation Plant. This plant is one of the largest MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) operations for Russian Cold War era jet fighters, transports and trainers. This includes engine overhaul. Since its founding in 2011 the Odessa Aviation Plant as specialized in MRO rather than building aircraft but it is currently the facility with room, equipment and skilled personnel to build the UH-1. The first Ukrainian UH-1 will be complete in late August, in time for the 30th Anniversary of independence from Russia (Soviet Union).

Details of the license were not made public and negotiations were apparently still underway with Bell Aircraft, a division of Textron since 1960. The Bell space program and jet aircraft operations were absorbed by other Textron divisions while Bell Aircraft became a major Textron division because of its then new UH-1 helicopter. Developed in the 1950s, it was the latest of several Bell helicopter designs, starting with the Bell 47 that was introduced in 1947 and nearly 6,000 were built until 1974. The Bell 47 was a piston engine aircraft while the UH-1 was powered by gas-turbine (jet-type) engines that became the standard for new helicopters. Bell has often done licensed production before, usually with West European helicopter manufacturers but Ukraine is a special case.

The deal with Ukraine may involve proposals that the Ukrainian production, if successful, may lead to Bell investing a lot more cash into establishing a partnership with Ukraine for helicopter production of more Bell commercial and military aircraft, including tilt-rotor and other new technologies. Textron could also help with expanded MRO support for Bell products. Ukraine has always been a major developer and manufacturer of key helicopter components like engines and electronics, but never complete helicopters. The Soviet Union did allow East European countries to produce components and even assemble some Cold War era helicopters but most of these deals evaporated after 1990 once East European nations were free of Russian control. While Ukraine was a major manufacturer of military transport aircraft during the Cold War, that capability declined after separation from Russia in 1991. Ukraine is negotiating with Boeing to revive commercial aircraft production in Ukraine and making a success of the UH-1 deal would help.

Currently the UH-1 lives on in the form of new military and commercial models, which have become popular worldwide and especially in Eastern Europe. In 2017 the Czech Republic ordered twelve UH-1Y twin-engine transport helicopters for $48 million each. These are newly built, with the cost of the helicopters alone being $28 million each with the rest covering spares, tech support and training as well as additional electronics along with some weapons (single and multi-barrel 7.62mm and 12.7mm machine-guns). The additional electronics are mainly missile defense systems, IFF (identify friend or foe), helmet mounted displays and navigation systems. Earlier in 2017 the U.S. Marine Corps increased their order for the UH-1Y to 160 with all of them newly built rather than any refurbed UH-1Ns.

The Czechs and marines are buying an iconic 1960s transport helicopter (the single engine UH-1 “Huey”) because it is the most capable and affordable transport helicopter on the market. Production of newly built UH-1Ys began in 2008 and since then over a hundred have been delivered or are on order.

The first major update of the UH-1 was twin-engine version that first appeared in the late 1960s as the Bell 212, a civilian version of the single engine UH-1. Introduced in 1971, the twin engine UH-1N was originally developed for the Canadian military and later adopted by the U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force, and many foreign countries who were willing to pay a premium for the additional safety and performance of two engines. While UH-1N production ceased in the late 1970s, the Bell 212 continued to be manufactured until 1998. That helped make it possible to resume production of the twin-engine UH-1 ten years later. Bell still develops and produces twin-engine commercial helicopters that evolved from the UH-1. The current example is the Bell-412 series that was introduced in 1981 and is still in production with over a thousand built so far.

Initially the main difference between the basic UH-1 and the UH-1N was the use of two engines in the latter, but that additional engine power did more than make the UH-1N more reliable and capable of carrying more passengers or cargo. In August 2014 marines officially retired its UH-1N helicopters and had to deal with the fact that there were no more recent designs that could match the UH-1N in terms of low cost, high reliability and performance. This led to a program to rebuild the retired UH-1Ns as UH-1Ys. Initially a hundred UH-1Ns were to be rebuilt at a cost of about $4 million each. It was also decided to build the UH-1Ys new rather than using the elderly UH-1N airframes. The UH-1Y had new rotors, stronger airframes, and new electronics to make the aircraft more capable and bring lifetime maintenance cost savings of about $14 million per aircraft. Part of this is achieved by installing sturdier and more reliable components. The marines expect the UH-1Ys to be as effective as the successors to these designs (the UH-60).

For the marines this is probably true. Marines don't have to move their helicopters as far or carry as much as the army does. For most jobs the older helicopters, with new engines and electronics, can do the job just as well, without the longer range and greater carrying capacity of the UH-60. The soundless of the original marine refurbishment plan convinced the Czech Republic that there was life left in the old, but still useful, UH-1N concept.

Meanwhile, starting in the 1980s, the U.S. Army and Navy largely replaced all their UH-1 transport helicopters, mainly with the UH-60, designed by rival Sikorsky. This 10.6-ton helicopter could carry more and was safer to operate that the original UH-1. But the UH-1Y is more like the UH-60 because this UH-1 is an 8.4-ton (max takeoff weight) transport that can carry ten passengers in special seats that protect them (as in the UH-60) if there is a hard landing or crash and twice as many people in an emergency. Alternatively, the UH-1Y can carry six stretcher patients or up to three tons of cargo. Max speed is 304 kilometers an hour while cruise speed is 250 to 293 kilometers an hour. Average endurance is three hours, giving the UH-1Y an average combat radius of 240 kilometers.

The original UH-1, developed in the late 1950s is still fading away yet still in use and, with the twin-engine models, still in production. During the Vietnam War (1961-72) over 16,000 UH-1s were built and over 4,000 were lost. Yet half a century later over a thousand UH-1s are still in service.

In part that is because the UH-1 was actually a military version of a civilian helicopter (Bell 204) design. Both remained in production through the 1980s, with over 12,000 204/205s being produced. The 4.3-ton, single engine, UH-1 carried two crew and 11 troops, and was the first military helicopter to use gas turbine (jet) engines. This allowed a lighter helicopter to carry more weight and that proved the model for all subsequent helicopters. The UH-1 served the army for 50 years, although since the 1990s most served in reserve units until those were retired in 2008.


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