Air Transportation: Spain Sticks With What Works

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April 25, 2018: The Spanish Army has ordered 17 American CH-47F transport helicopters for $76.5 million each. That includes spare parts, maintenance equipment and tech support. The Spanish Army already has 17 older CH-47s, delivered in several purchases from 1973 through the mid-1990s. These were all upgraded to CH-47Ds by 2011 although two were lost in service. Spanish CH-47s served in Afghanistan several times, starting in 2007. Spain has climate and geography (“hot and high”) similar to Afghanistan and the Spanish pilots quickly adapted to the Afghan conditions. The Spanish used their CH-47s a lot throughout the years and that made it more practical to buy new CH-47Fs rather than upgrade the current ones.

Meanwhile, the United States has many more recent CH-47s being upgraded to the F standard in addition to ordering some new CH-47Fs. The development of the F model was the result of discovering that the huge projected cost of developing a new transport helicopter was not worth it compared to spending $11.4 billion dollars to refurbish its fleet of existing CH-47s instead. This decision was driven largely by the success of the CH-47F model, which first flew in 2001 and by 2003 demonstrated that a new helicopter design would not be practical in the face of the much cheaper F model. None of the proposed CH-47 replacements was dramatically better than an upgraded CH-47. This upgrade effort has led to a U.S. Army fleet of 513 CH-47F helicopters (including 397 rebuilt CH-47D choppers, 55 new build 47Fs ones, plus some special versions). The CH-47F has been so successful that the army was able to persuade Congress to allow the fleet to be expanded with more new choppers as well.

The rebuilt CH-47Ds became CH-47Fs that are good for another twenty years of service. The F model CH-47 has up-to-date digital communications, is easier to maintain, and cheaper to operate. The CH-47F can carry up to 55 troops and has a maximum range of 426 kilometers. Its max speed is 315 kilometers an hour. Typical missions last no more than 2.5 hours.

In 2010 the CH-47F helicopter got its first sustained experience in a combat zone and performed well. This was a major factor in getting the money to buy more of them. A company of 20 CH-47Fs arrived in Afghanistan during 2009, and soon found themselves often flying eight missions a day, day after day. The CH-47Fs had a 90 percent availability rate. Although the CH-47F has been flying since 2001 and were first delivered to the army in 2009, it takes sustained use in a combat environment to smoke out the last bugs and maintenance problems. In Afghanistan, there were some problems with the flat panel displays, but these were quickly worked out. There were several other minor problems, mostly having to do with all the dust in the environment and the temperature extremes (often below freezing in Winter and over 45 degrees/113 Fahrenheit in Summer). This was tough on the maintainers and manufacturers' reps initially, but after a year maintenance problems were no longer an issue. This is important because in Afghanistan the CH-47 is a critical form of air transportation, including combat assault.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Army had used UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters for combat assault missions, while the larger CH-47 "Chinook" was used just for moving cargo. But the army found that, in the high altitudes of Afghanistan, the more powerful CH-47 was often the only way to go in the thin mountain air. While doing that the army found that the CH-47 made an excellent assault helicopter. In many ways, it was superior to the UH-60, mainly because the CH-47 carries more troops and moves faster and farther. The CH-47F has even more powerful engines and is even more valuable for high altitude assaults. It is the best helicopter for use in Afghanistan, having proved able to deal with the dust and high altitude operations better than other transport choppers.

The first CH-47s entered service in 1962, able to carry only five tons. Some 750 saw service in Vietnam and 200 were lost in action. During 1982-94, 500 CH-47s were rebuilt to the CH-47D standard. SOCOM operates 31 MH-47Ds and Es, which have additional navigation gear. These are being upgraded to MH-47F standards and the fleet expanded to 61 helicopters. As a result of all this, the CH-47 will end up serving at least 75 years. The original CH-47F upgrade program and new builds will not be completed until 2018. A new contract extends production into the 2020s.

 


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