by James Wynbrandt
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has been the backbone of the U.S. Army’s tactical transport fleet, carrying troops and equipment to and from combat zones across the globe, since the first model, the UH-60A, entered service in 1978 — 40 years ago. Now, the U.S. Army is preparing to transport its legacy UH-60L models, with their analog instrument panels, into the digital age, through the UH-60V upgrade program.
The Victor model transformation will replace the Lima’s steam gauge instruments with an all-glass Integrated Avionics Suite (IAS), in the process improving fleet readiness and lowering maintenance, training, and lifecycle costs. But the modernization plan is not only about avionics, nor does it involve only the Black Hawk.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Duus, Product Manager, UH-60V, in the Army’s Program Executive Office Aviation at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, the program also incorporates a rapid prototyping process. Promising faster results with less cost, this cutting-edge methodology will be applicable across a variety of platforms. “Establishing a program like 60 Victor just allows us to be fiscally smart,” he says.
The Digital Transformation
Current in-production Black Hawk models — specifically, the UH-60M introduced in 2006 — are built with digital panels; however, legacy UH-60Ls comprise about one-third of the fleet. In 2014, Northrop Grumman won a U.S. Army contract to develop the digital avionics package and provide the IAS for between 700 and 900 UH-60V Black Hawk upgrades.
The IAS panel features four, large multifunction displays (MFDs) and Control Display Units (CDUs), which allow the pilot to select information viewed on the screens. A redundant Ethernet backbone supports high data rate synchronization by the FlightPro Gen III mission computers, with duplicate Ethernet switches included for added fault tolerance.
Also incorporated in the IAS is an integrated multi-sensor navigation system with embedded global positioning/inertial navigation capability that provides data to the flight management system (FMS), significantly reducing pilot workload and boosting operational precision and safety. Plus state-of-the-art video input and output supports the use of imaging data.
The UH-60L is already outfitted with an Integrated Vehicle Health and Usage Monitoring System (IVHUMS), but its information display is limited. The UH-60V panel includes “a seamless integration between the IVHUMS system/sensors and the upgraded avionics” for a more intuitive information display, says Ed Griebel, Director, Land & Avionics C4ISR Division of Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia.
The Victor also incorporates an Engine Instrument Control and Alerting System (EICAS) to detect engine malfunctions and prevent pilots from operating the engines if a potentially hazardous condition is detected. The panel (also known as the “pilot-vehicle interface”) is almost identical to that in the UH-60M, a key design objective. “For the aviator, you’re going to be able to go from a Victor to a Mike model or vice versa, and the buttons you push are going to be in the same spot,” Duus says.
The external airframe remains basically unchanged. Though a transition area access door has been added to provide easier access to the tailboom, reducing its inspection, maintenance, and repair time and cost. The Victor upgrade also extends the airframe’s service life by 10 years.
Open Architecture and Universal Standards
Building the IAS on an open-architecture foundation was a U.S. Army design imperative with the aim of “reducing cost and risk for system integration and upgrades,” says Griebel. Open-architecture platforms also speed software development and facilitate the use of off-the-shelf applications.
Four independently redundant MIL-STD-1553B buses — two for the digital cockpit and two spares — enable third-party development of existing and new modules and ensure the IAS has the capacity for future growth. An ARINC-653 centralized processor, with a partitioned operational flight program, allows integration of common standard hardware and software for rapid insertion of new capabilities.
Though developed by Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Army has “contractual ownership of the UH-60V technical data package,” Duus notes. This should help minimize future costs and “expand competition” when contracting future program work.
The digital suite also has fewer parts and line item repairable components as compared to the Lima’s panel. This translates into “greater reliability and a reduced level of maintenance,” Duus says. He also points out that the upgrade is expected to yield “future cost avoidance, as analog instrumentation used in the UH-60L experiences growing obsolescence challenges and becomes more expensive.”
Northrop Grumman based its approach to the IAS design and installation on experience with avionics upgrades for the U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z and UH-1Y helicopters and U.S. Navy E-2D Advanced Hawkeye programs. The Cockpit and Sensor Upgrade Program (CASUP) for the Victor was initially developed for the OH-58 Kiowa. (It was one of twenty-nine upgrades considered under a proposed U.S. Army Aviation aircraft modernization project, though this modification was never implemented.)
The IAS also has been developed in accordance with global regulatory standards. The software was engineered under DO-178C certifiable protocols (the standards governing safety-critical avionics and software development), and the system is aligned with the industry-government consortium Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) standard. System technology is compliant with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Global Air Traffic Management requirements for military and civilian airspace, ensuring the aircraft can traverse both categories of airspace worldwide. Additionally, the FMS is FAA certifiable and TSO-C115b compliant.
A New Prototype Paradigm
The U.S. Army set an ambitious timeline of just under 2.5 years from contract signing to get the UH-60V off the ground under the aegis of the Army’s Prototype Integration Facility (PIF), a government-owned, government-operated (GOGO) organization at Redstone Arsenal. A technological think tank, the PIF operates as a rapid response unit for developing quick, low-cost solutions to meet specific Army equipment needs, working either independently, or in conjunction with other governmental agencies and/or the private sector.
Though the PIF was established in 2002, the UH-60V project represents a new prototyping paradigm for the U.S. Army, “a streamlined process to speed contract award and integrate enhanced technology,” says Duus. As he points out, “The PIF management of this prototyping effort has significantly benefitted the UH-60V program.”
In this program, Northrop Grumman and PIF subject matter experts have worked collaboratively to develop the IAS prototype, while PIF’s sister organization at Redstone, the Software Engineering Directorate, developed a Systems Integration Lab (SIL) to test the components and system. Built from actual aircraft, the SIL incorporates as much hardware and cockpit equipment as feasible, in order to facilitate Pilot-in-the-Loop testing in simulated flight environments. With preliminary integration testing complete, contractor Redstone Defense Systems (RDS) installed the IAS in the prototype platform at PIF.
On schedule in January 2017, 29 months after contract signing, the UH-60V prototype first flew. It performed a series of maneuvers, including take-off, hover, and track and balance, on a flight of just over an hour.
The first prototype has since undergone system-level developmental testing and validation at Redstone’s Aviation Flight Test Directorate. Meanwhile, in preparation for Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP), RDS is developing three Engineering Development Models (EDMs). These additional prototypes will be used in the UH-60V’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation in 2019. RDS is also developing a standardized procedure for installing the IAS.
Tomorrow’s Black Hawk Fleet
Scheduled for entry into service in fiscal year 2021, the upgrades will be performed at Corpus Christi Army Depot, where heavy Black Hawk maintenance is already performed. This arrangement will be “taking advantage of a scheduled major depot level aircraft overhaul to install the UH-60V cockpit, which reduces labor cost to the Army,” Duus explains.
U.S. Army plans call for 760 UH-60Vs and 1,375 UH-60Ms in its Black Hawk fleet, with the last of these Victors to be delivered in 2033. Meanwhile, in the face of looming 2017 Pentagon budget cuts, the Army slashed planned purchases of the M variant almost in half last year, from 60 to 36. So the service’s need for the upgraded platform continues to grow.
Good news is that while new UH-60Ms are priced at $16 million, the upgrades are estimated to cost $4 million each. That means that each UH-60V fielded provides comparable capability at one-quarter the cost.
At the same time, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard, along with about two-dozen allies, also operate Lima model Black Hawks. Orders for the upgrade package from these operators could further reduce per unit costs across the board. Costs associated with maintaining two different types of Black Hawks — each with distinct training requirements, replacement parts, repair crews, and equipment — will also decline as the Ls models are converted. And the established UH-60V SIL at Redstone will remain an essential test asset for demonstrating and verifying Operational Flight Program software throughout the upgraded model’s lifecycle.
The next Black Hawk improvement program, a significant engine upgrade, is on the horizon. The UH-60 fleet is currently powered by General Electric’s T700-GE-701D turboshaft engine, which replaced the T700–GE-700 turbines in the Alpha model Black Hawk. (The UH-60L was also given a stronger gearbox than its predecessor.) But military equipment has gotten heavier in the last three decades, and the U.S. Army wants an engine that provides improved high, hot performance, increased durability, and reduced fuel consumption.
Plans call for replacing the T700-GE-701Ds with powerplants developed in the U.S. Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), in an initiative to field a better, common engine for both the UH-60 and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Savings achieved through the UH-60V project are helping fund ITEP, but progress is slow. At this point, Army officials anticipate the start of engineering and manufacturing development of this new turbine for its attack helicopters no earlier than 2023.
Image #1 – U.S. Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk with snow-ski kit. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Image #2 & #3 - Black Hawk Cockpit Digitization. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman.
Image #4 - The AH-1Z Viper was declared combat ready by the Marine Corps and will undergo its first upcoming operational deployment as part of Amphibious Squadron. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman.
Image #5 – Crew inside the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman.
Image #6 – A UH-1Y Huey helicopter attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Aviation Combat Element takes off from the flight deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Image #7 – The engineering development model UH-60V Black Hawk hovers above the runway as part of its successful initial test flight in Meridianville, AL. The UH-60V is being designed to update existing UH-60L analog architecture with a digital infrastructure to address evolving interoperability and survivability requirements. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Shannon L Kirkpatrick (PEO Aviation)