Army commandos first to get bad-weather vision for US helicopters

by Tony Capaccio
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army commando unit that's flown missions from "Black Hawk Down" to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden will be the first to get new sensor technology to help guide helicopters through sometimes deadly bad weather.

By mid-2019, the system to navigate through thick clouds of dust or snow will be installed on specialized MH-47G Chinook copters and MH-60M Black Hawks flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, according to a command spokesman. The unit is the prime transporter of U.S. special operations forces.

Sierra Nevada beat Boeing and Rockwell Collins last month for the third phase of a $22.6 million Special Operations Command project to produce and field the system that can see through "degraded visual environment" conditions. These have caused almost $1 billion of $1.4 billion in damage and a majority of the casualties from 2002 to this year in major helicopter accidents that killed 152 personnel, according to Army safety data.

The aviation regiment is best known for landing Delta Force commandos on the street outside a prison in downtown Panama City in 1989 to rescue a U.S. businessman, losing choppers in the 1993 mission in Somalia that came to be known as "Black Hawk Down" and flying Navy Seal Team Six commandos into the Pakistan compound that housed bin Laden in 2011.

Helicopters from the 160th also brought Army Green Berets into northern Afghanistan in October 2001 to start the U.S. invasion there, a mission that had to be delayed for days because of bad weather.

The system built by closely held Sierra Nevada fuses information from on-board sensors indicating a helicopter's proximity to the ground "to display real-time reference points, obstacles and landing zone information to pilots," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matt Allen, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command, said in an email. He said the system "will significantly increase crew and passenger safety" and aircraft survivability.

Pilots hovering or on landing approaches with other aircraft can become disoriented and "lose visual reference with the ground" when they encounter swirling "brownouts" of fine sand and dust, snow "whiteouts," heavy fog or rain, according to an Army Combat Readiness Center bulletin outlining the dangers.

Like someone walking or driving through a dust storm, a pilot's view may ebb and flow from light to dark and from limited visibility to none at all.

The Special Operations Command plans to buy as many as 169 of the systems, including spares, from Sierra Nevada starting next fiscal year through 2027, he said. The command has budgeted $149 million through 2020 to continue development and to purchase the Sierra Nevada system.

A pilot using the Sierra Nevada system receives a 30-degree view on a cockpit display of images fused from sensors. It may include color-coded depictions of wires, towers and other obstacles based on their height and location, Dean Heitkamp, a Sierra Nevada director of business development for enhanced vision systems and a former pilot with the 160th, said in an interview.

"When a helicopter gets close to landing" it could be enveloped in a large dust cloud, he said. "You could get it during takeoff but it's most prominent during approach, hover and landing," he said.

Other companies have tried technologies that fuse data and imagery from one or two sensors but "we've been very successful fusing three," Heitkamp said.

The command could make a decision on full-rate production in 2017 or 2018, Greg Cox, a vice president with Sparks, Nevada- based Sierra Nevada, said in a statement when the award was announced.

The Army is working on a separate program after assessing alternative technologies that will lead to a request for information from contractors in the next few months and a formal request for proposals in early fiscal 2017 to buy systems for its UH-60M and CH-47F helicopters, Sofia Bledsoe, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an email. She said the Army hopes to field its first system in late 2019, with full deployment by 2024.

The Army wants to "not only own the night," as night-vision goggles now allow it to do, "but also own the environment," she said.

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