Little Bird Smells Market Victory


It is at the point where I step over the collective-pitch control and strap into Boeing's AH-6i armed reconnaissance helicopter that I fully realize that there is no door and that I am about to discover to what extent my childhood acrophobia has receded. 

blog post photo

Fortunately I don't need to cut short a brief sortie over a rare sight in Singapore, a tract of empty land lying between the show site and the nation's main naval base. Boeing pilot Paul Hightower is in the right seat and briefs me on the most important control that I can manipulate without disastrous consequences: a fighter-joystick-like controller that commands the L-3 Wescam MX-15i sensor ball and its associated flat-panel display, the left-hand unit in a pair that fills most of the panel. 

The MX-15i and its integration into the AH-6i's avionics - based on hardware and software from the new AH-64E Apache Guardian - are a major selling point for the helicopter, which is starting production for Saudi Arabia (long-lead items for the production birds have been ordered) and for which Boeing has high hopes. 

The company says that there are as many as 1,500 older armed reconnaissance helicopters in service worldwide, from older MD-500s to Mi-24s, most with little or no ability to operate at night or deploy precision weapons. 

As we go low and slow around our limited airspace, I practice slewing, zooming and locking the sensor and switching between modes - midwave infrared, color high-definition video, low-light TV and a fused IR and HDTV picture. 

A bulk carrier is several kilometers away, a near-shapless floating stick to the naked eye. Click the zoom and its name is clearly readable. Fused HDTV/IR causes people and vehicles to pop out of the background. The key, Boeing says, is that the crew of the AH-6i - based on the Little Bird developed for Task Force 160, the US Army's Nightstalkers - can detect, track and identify small moving targets at distances where its signature six-blade whir (this chopper does not chop) is inaudible. 

Hightower demonstrates other features: the sensor can be locked on, can autotrack aircraft and other movers, and can be used to locate a target on the moving map and store it in menory, so that it can be slewed back to re-acquire it automatically. 

The system generates coordinates that can be passed to other assets, in the air or on the ground, and the sensor can slew itself to an objective entered on the pilot's tactical situation display map. We decide that we have taken fire from a small conical bush. ("Mr Nesbitt has learned the value of not being seen. However, he has chosen a rather obvious piece of cover.") The MX-15i locks on, Hightower reefs the Little Bird around (the view through the place where a door would be if this was not a scout is very close. And all green) and demonstrates how the forward-firing Gatlings combined with the small helicopter's agility provide effective fire suppression. 

Boeing sees a strong regional market for the aircraft, including some shipboard operators.

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