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Sustaining the helicopter industry: Call for concern

There is serious concern about the viability of the remaining helicopter production capacity in the US today
There is serious concern about the viability of the remaining helicopter production capacity in the US today

Old birds are still flying such as the CH-47 Chinook and H-60 Black Hawk helicopters that have been and still are military workhorses.

Helicopters in Vietnam

I know about them because I was program manager on a maintenance initiative to help improve repair cost and efficiency. The H-60s were repaired by the Army at a central repair facility, and all of the services would send theirs to that location. Interestingly, the requirements for repair and maintenance varied among the services because their missions and environments varied as well as the data kept in the flight records.

Talking with pilots, the CH-47 required some special skills, and may have been much more difficult to fly. Yet, that big chopper could do amazing things as pilots from the Vietnam War era can testify, not slighting the H-60 in the least by saying that.

The producers of these helicopters, Boeing and Sikorsky can’t survive on spare parts and maintenance support. They need new orders for new aircraft, and new aircraft design. An article in DefenseNews made GoogleNews headlines today as it is an editorial calling for DOD Industrial Policy.

Well, the DOD has long had an industrial policy and staffs a special office just for that purpose. While the nation’s conservatives decry America having an industrial policy, that is foolish because national security and defense depend upon it.

Most people don’t realize that without military acquisition of aircraft, American producers would be out of business. Boeing, for instance, could not sustain aircraft production on commercial orders alone.

Most people don’t realize that the facilities where the B-2 Stealth bomber was produced was reduced to rubble when the job was complete. The home of the B-1 has long vanished. That means that all of those people who had the skill, knowledge, and experience to produce those aircraft are retired or otherwise gone from the workforce. America is vulnerable as a result.

America is economically vulnerable by the loss of manufacturing jobs because that is the source of upward mobility and job opportunity. The manufacturing industry is “from art to parts” as they once said. It begins with invention, design and engineering that is the application of math and science. It continues through machine and assembly engineering and production. It drives through distribution and logistics support. The complete package is a fascinating and rewarding industry which should be the pillar of the American economy.

So, in one instance, how the helicopter industry goes is how goes the American economy. We should all be concerned about that.

“Editorial: DoD Needs Industrial Strategy

Mar. 30, 2014 - 04:24PM |

As America winds down from its wars, once robust spending on a range of core military systems such as armored vehicles and unmanned aircraft has sharply dropped, especially on helicopters.

An analysis of the Pentagon’s five-year spending plans by Defense News — in partnership with data analysis firm VisualDoD — has found that spending on the Defense Department’s top helicopter programs is dropping at 14 percent per year and 45 percent over the multiyear plan.

So if you’re a helicopter company, you can look forward to some upgrade and support work.
The big contract to develop a replacement for a series of existing helicopters, from the ubiquitous H-60 Black Hawk to the heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook, is the Joint Multi-Role Future Vertical Lift program. But repeated delays mean that, under current plans, a new helicopter won’t enter widespread service until the 2030s. For a company, that’s 15 years and 60 quarterly earnings calls away.

Despite the gap, the leading US military helicopter suppliers — Bell, Boeing, Sikorsky and Europe’s Airbus — have all invested many millions of their own dollars to develop and build prototypes to test new technologies.
That’s advanced the state of the helicopter art, but companies — to date, at least — make money on production. So such a prolonged gap is problematic.

The good news is that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Army will invest about $130 million through 2018 in new helicopter technologies.

The effort will help define what future military helicopters should look like, and who will be able to build them.
It’s important to seed money that, when planted in austerity, should produce results. It’s a good model that must be applied to other fields affected by declining funding, including armored vehicles that benefited from wartime spending but will be hurt in post-conflict funding doldrums.

The Pentagon must adopt a sound long-range industrial strategy that doesn’t blindly subsidize its armor and helicopter makers, but sustains them wisely to ensure that it has competitive options.”

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