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Wearing HMM-268 Red Dragons identity, the AH-1Z element of the 11th MEU is drawn from HMLA-367 Scarface .


report and photos: Gary Wetzel 91

Above: Pre-deployment work-up training for the AH-1Zs of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group was conducted aboard the USS New Orleans (LPD 18) in August. US Navy/Dominique Pineiro Left to right: Seen on a mission from MCAS Camp Pendleton during predeployment training, an AH-1Z shows-off its distinctive lines. Looks can kill! The Optimized Top Owl (OTO) and HelmetMounted Sight and Display System (HMSD) is integrated into both the aircraft avionics and the weapons systems.


The debut deployment of the AH-1Z Viper puts an end to a long development period that witnessed its share of setbacks. The end result, however, is the most capable rotary-wing attack platform the US Marine Corps has ever possessed.
early 11 years after its first flight, the Bell aH-1Z Viper, better known as the Zulu, began its maiden deployment in November 2011 after achieving initial operating capability nine months earlier with the Us Marine Corps. Deploying aboard Uss Makin Island (lHD8) as part of the aviation Combat element (aCe) of the 11th Marine expeditionary Unit (MeU), the Zulu will at last deliver the impressive range of new capabilities promised when it was first envisioned back in the mid-1990s. the Zulu boasts more range, more speed, more firepower and better sensors than the aH-1W super Cobra it replaces, in order to better locate and target enemy positions, vehicles and personnel. at $29 million per copy, the Zulu is not inexpensive, but the investment is beginning to demonstrate its worth. together with its stablemate the similarly upgraded UH-1y Venom, or more commonly yankee the aH-1Z will be better able to protect Marine and coalition forces while inflicting a new level of punishment on the enemy.

From Whiskey to Zulu

In 1995 the Marine Corps was authorized to pursue an upgrade for its existing light attack and utility helicopters, the aH-1W and the UH-1N. the H-1 Upgrade Program was signed a year later between the Marine Corps and Bell Helicopters, the original intent being to remanufacture existing airframes. However, the program was modified several times to include new-production airframes and revisions to the total number to be procured. the yankee and Zulu would have a high degree of commonality, meaning that the two helicopters, which would populate the Marine light attack squadrons (HMla) for the next several decades, would share most of the same parts. this would reduce costs, the amount of unique spare parts needed, and the number of personnel to maintain the different airframes. among common parts, the yankee and Zulu would share tail booms, a new four-bladed rotor system, controls, a glass cockpit, and engines. the importance of commonality cannot be overlooked as the Marine Corps exists primarily in an expeditionary environment where a smaller logistical

footprint is an absolute requirement for mission success. the initial Zulu cadre deployed as part of HMM-268 (reinforced), the aviation Combat element (aCe) of the 11th MeU. Commanding the aCe is lt Col Chad turtle Blair, a CH-46 pilot with over 4,000 flight hours. speaking to Combat Aircraft he emphasized the importance of the yankee and Zulu sharing the same supply train. as an advanced integrated weapons system, the aH-1Z has quickly become a welcome addition to not only the 11th MeU aCe, but to Marine aviation as a whole. the obvious benefits that the aH-1Z brings to the battlefield include increased range, increased weapons payload, and improved sensors. However, to fully understand the benefits of the aH-1Z you must acknowledge its venerable partner, the UH-1y. Both aircraft were developed under the collaborative H-1 Upgrade Program. the end result is two distinct yet complimentary aircraft that share 84 per cent parts commonality. the significance of parts commonality cannot be overstated when discussing aircraft readiness and shipboard operations. shipboard aviation operations present unique challenges to the science of supply and logistics. traditional models of just-in-time logistics and warehousing are ineffective when overnight delivery is not an option and storage space aboard ships is at a premium. Of the 189 aH-1Zs the Marine Corps is looking to acquire, only 58 will be newbuild airframes, and the rest will be aH-1Ws that have gone through a remanufacturing process. Originally, all of the Zulus were to be remanufactured, but in the midst of fighting two wars, the Marine Corps ordered the new-build Zulus rather than risk depleting operational units of airworthy airframes during squadron transitions. the end result, whether a new build or remanufacture, will be an aircraft that may look much like the aircraft it is replacing, but nevertheless exhibits some fairly obvious differences. the most obvious external differences are the addition of a four-bladed composite main rotor, which replaces the metal two-bladed main rotor on the Whiskey, and the new sensor package on the nose of the Zulu. lt Col scott tracker Clifton is the executive Officer of HMM-268. He was

The AH-1Z would simply walk away from the AH-1W and there was nothing you could do to prevent it
Lt Col Scott Tracker Clifton, CO HMM-268 93

one of the first Marine pilots to work with the Zulu at Naval air Weapons station (NaWs) China lake, and he explained why the new rotor system provides such benefits: the aH-1Z and the aH-1W share the same engine model so the key to increased power and performance is the four-bladed rotor system and the associated combining gearbox and transmission, he told Combat Aircraft. the aH-1W is limited by the weight of the underslung rotor head and the blades. the change to the composite blades and the fully articulated rotor head allow for greater efficiency to be realized from the engines, which results in increased payload, greater speed, and longer range.

The long road

On December 7, 2000, the first aH-1Z Z1 made its first 15-minute flight. Within 20 months all three engineering, manufacturing and development (eMD) Zulus (Z1, Z2 and

electronics and fire-control system could be added when they were ready, as the aH-1W evolved into the aH-1Z. Complicating this good idea was the reality that procurement in evolutionary steps is difficult to manage from a budgetary standpoint, so the emphasis remained on development of the aH-1Z. During those early days flying Z1, Z2 and Z3 and the aH-1Ws together as part of the Zulus assessment, the most obvious difference was in performance, and this made the testing complicated to conduct. the most difficult part of flying Z1 and the aH-1W supporting Ot-IIB was the difference in the handling characteristics between the two aircraft, lt Col Clifton said. Z1 had such an impressive power margin that it could keep up with Z2 and Z3 pulling off a target meaning it could accelerate in a turn whereas the aH-1W had to constantly fly a collision-type intercept just to attempt to keep up, and that rarely worked. the

The performance of the AH-1Z sensor is astounding. It reduces the time to get ordnance on target
Capt Ben Dover Schneider, 11th MEU ACE
Z3) had been delivered to Naval air station Patuxent river, Maryland, for initial flight testing, but the real work would begin with the transfer of the airframes to NaWs China lake and into the hands of the Vampires of VX-9. Z1 was delivered with the new four-bladed rotor system but lacking the new avionics and sensors that follow-on developmental airframes would include. lt Col Clifton was part of the VX-9 team responsible for the early assessment of the first Zulu airframes to be flown by Marine pilots. Z1 represented a logical evolutionary step for the aH-1W program, lt Col Clifton explained. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that Z1 was more than a demonstration vehicle for the four-bladed rotor system but it was the path the upgrades program should have taken years before. Z1 had the increased range, speed, and payload but lacked the integrated multi-function displays of Z2 and Z3. a recommendation from the Operational assessment (Ot-IIB) team was that any developmental delays in the aH-1Z could be met with an interim solution of the four-bladed rotor system added to the aH-1W, and then the integrated aH-1Z would simply walk away from the aH-1W and there was nothing you could do to prevent it the translation of power from the four-bladed rotor system to the platform was incredible. When the Zulu achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in february 2011, Bell Helicopter announced that this had been completed ahead of schedule despite the original IOC being predicted for late fy2006. Despite the setbacks, the recent history of the Zulus development is flushed with success, and according to ltCol Clifton most of that can be attributed to key decisions and lessons learned from other recent airframe introductions. Zulu and yankee development have been in work for approximately the last decade. During this time, the program saw some setbacks during its developmental and operational testing but Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) made several key decisions that set up the program for the success we are seeing now. first, Deputy Commandant for aviation directed the program to pursue yankee forward, which focused procurement and deployment on the UH-1y and to the transition away from

the UH-1N. this allowed the Marine Corps to focus on the oldest and most underpowered platform in our inventory first. second, the issues that were discovered during the aH-1Z Operational assessments and evaluations were corrected prior to dedicated procurement and fleet introduction. this delay in the aH-1Z procurement helped to ensure its success because the developmental and operational test teams could work through any integration issues, and it resulted in a better product being deployed to the fleet. During this time the UH-1y made its first MeU deployment and passed those lessons learned to the aH-1Z. additionally, the procurement process was a co-ordinated effort directed by HQMC through the use of a transition task force (ttf) which focused on personnel, facilities, and logistics. Marine aircraft Group 39 (MaG-39) was directed to be the platform lead, as they would be executing the H-1 transition. the depth of the transition extended from the obvious aircraft on the flight line and assorted parts, to the obscure officer grade shaping, maintainer training, and technical support. the significance of the obscure details is that they incorporated the lessons learned from the MV-22 transition and ensured the H-1 transition would occur seamlessly with its deployment schedules. H-1 squadrons do not stand down in order to transition to the new platforms. the squadrons transition during a work-up period of six to nine months and deploy with the new platform on time. for example, HMla-367 transitioned its UH-1y aircrew and deployed to afghanistan in six months.

Time, ordnance and sensors

the aH-1Z brings three keys to the battlefield in support of the Ground Combat element time, ordnance, and sensors, or legs, punch and eyes, lt Col Clifton pointed out. the increased fuel capacity allows the Zulu a longer time on station relative to the aH-1W, which equates to not only more time overhead for the troops on the ground but also represents an overall decrease in the number of aircraft required to provide support because of the increased time-on-station capability. the Zulu has a combat radius of 139nm with 3,500lb-plus payload, a 47 per cent increase over the Whiskeys 58nm radius with a similar load. the addition of an extra 100 gallons of fuel


capacity along with the ability to carry an external fuel tank of either 77 or 100 gallons provide the Zulu the legs to reach the fight and stay there longer. second, the aircraft brings more weapons to the fight. the ability to carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles is completely unprecedented for any Marine Corps platform, and then the multiple combinations of rockets, 20mm and Hellfire missiles afford the ground commander more weapons capability than has ever been present before. the aH-1Zs newly designed wing stubs are longer and add a new wingtip station for carrying the aIM-9 sidewinder, and the two other stations per wing stub can tote 2.75in rockets, Hellfire missiles in quad launchers or an external fuel tank. finally, the tss is a huge advancement over the Night targeting system (Nts), lt Col Clifton said, referring to the heart of the Zulus ability to effectively engage the enemy and survive, the lockheed Martin aN/aaQ-30 target sight system (tss). the tss is an electro-optical/infra-red (eO/ Ir) system for fire control and incorporates forward-looking infra-red, tV and a laser designator and rangefinder. the Nts was a good sensor as an upgrade from simple direct-view optics and brought a firstgeneration flIr capability to the aH-1W. the tss is a third-generation flIr as well as color camera fully integrated into the weapons and navigation systems. Where the aH-1W would have to close within enemy weapons range in order to accurately identify targets, the tss allows the aH-1Z to remain well outside both the audible and visual acquisition ranges of the enemy, thus allowing for employment of our weapons at a range where we not only cant be detected but can engage with our weapons out to their maximum effective range. the main areas of increased survivability are tied to the improvement in the sensors. the tss has improved our ability to detect, recognize and identify targets at much greater ranges as compared to the aH-1W. for example, recently we fired a Hellfire missile at 4.6km under low light level conditions where another aH-1W crew on the same range the same night had to close to within 1.1km in order to shoot their missile. the further out we can identify targets and engage them with our weapons, the less vulnerable we are to enemy fire. additionally, the sensor and integration to the aircraft have made our

use of ordnance more effective. Combine an increase in effectiveness with an ability to physically carry more ordnance, and the result is a more survivable platform due to a higher percentage of kills with the weapons on board, and more targets that can be prosecuted given the same ordnance load. the ability to shorten the kill chain is a pressing requirement in modern warfare. the Zulu will often work with the UH-1y on the battlefield, and while the yankee does possess the advanced aN/aaQ-22e BrIte star II sensor and targeting package, the system is not the Zulus tss. the performance of the aH-1Z sensor is astounding, Capt Ben Dover schneider, a UH-1y pilot with the 11th MeU aCe, commented. Its range and functionality allow it to not only quickly find targets from stand-off, but to hold them while performing other responsibilities within the flight. specifically, it has great intuition and hold parameters that keep the field of view on the target area as the aircraft is maneuvering. this drastically shortens the time required for a mixed section (aH and UH) performing close air support to complete target correlation with the ground element, which reduces the time to get ordnance on target. the aH-1Z seats the two pilots in tandem, and the crew stations are identical. either pilot can perform any task in the helicopter from either seat, explained Capt Michael tetreault, a Zulu pilot among those making the first deployment. Most of the time, the pilot/co-pilot roles are determined based on qualifications in the aircraft or flight leadership. since the cockpits are identical, cockpit tasks are usually broken down by flying and non-flying pilot. Obviously, the flying pilot will be doing all of the aircraft positioning in the flight, communication, and will also be the rocket shooter. the nonflying pilot is the sensor operator. He will be the one who is using the flIr and tV to detect, recognize, and identify targets. He will also be the one setting up weapons for any engagement and navigating the objective area. It is his job to keep the flying pilot oriented as the Hellfire shooter and primary gun shooter. With the Zulu, any gauge, sensor, or weapon can be utilized from either crew station. another important advancement for the pilots who will fly and fight in the Zulu is the introduction of the Optimized top

Above: The Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-30 Target Sight System (TSS) and the 20mm M197 threebarrel gun. The gun can dish out approximately 650 rounds per minute.

Owl (OtO) and Helmet-Mounted sight and Display system (HMsD). lt Col Clifton told Combat Aircraft: the HMsD is a monocle that fits over the right eye both for day operations and night vision goggles. the HMsD is integrated into both the aircraft systems and the weapons systems. so, the monocle is a heads-up display for each pilot that presents them with airspeed, groundspeed, pitch and heading, as well as the weapons symbology you would expect in a hard-mounted HUD on the glare shield. additionally, the HMsD is linked to the magnetic tracking of the helmets, so within each monocle is a reticule where that pilot is looking and a dashed or ghosted reticule of where the other pilot is looking. so, from a pilot perspective you can instantaneously determine where the other pilot is looking by simply saying on my ghost. the reticule in your helmet has directional cues to show where the other pilot is looking. this is a huge situational awareness aid and a vast improvement over using the clock code and then talking on the other pilot.

The next chapter

When the aH-1Z departed with the 11th MeU in the fall of 2011, it marked the culmination of over a decade of work. the Marine Corps is finally deploying the attack helicopter it has long wanted to take into battle, and in the Zulu it has a platform that implements the lessons learned during 10 years of continual combat in two different war zones. Whether escorting transport helicopters, providing support for anti-piracy operations, conducting armed reconnaissance or supporting ground troops with intelligence or direct fire support, the Zulu will be there day or night.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to express his gratitude to Lt Cols Chad Turtle Blair, Scott Tracker Clifton, Maj Travis Patterson, Capts Ben Dover Schneider and Michael Shitshow Tetreault, 1st Lt Maureen Dooley, Sgts Destin Waldron, Derek Carlson, and Cpl Steven Posey and the many others at 3rd MAW PAO and HMM-268(R). 95