The first Apache Block III helicopter was delivered to the Army today during a ceremony at the Boeing plant here in which the aircraft was rolled out on stage under bright lights and a wisp of generated smoke.
Hundreds of industry, government and military officials attended the event in which two of the new AH-64 aircraft were actually delivered to the Army ahead of schedule. The first Block III helicopter was finished about a week early and the second about a month ahead of schedule, according to David Koopersmith, Boeing Attack Helicopter Programs vice president.
"It's an amazing game-changer," said Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby about the new Apache. Crosby, the Army's program executive officer for aviation, went on to say during a press conference that no other helicopter in the world could match the Apache Block III.
The new attack helicopter has a stronger engine, improved avionics, better computer-networking capability and increased maneuverability when compared to current Apaches, officials said.
The Block III Apache features a 701D engine, composite rotor blades, a "Rotorcraft Drive System of the 21st Century" known as RDS-21, Face Gear Transmission and High Performance Shock Strut advanced landing gear.
"It's like flying an Appaloosa stud," said Lt. Col. Dan Bailey, Apache Block III program manager, who said he had experience as a youth breaking horses.
"This aircraft is so much faster and stronger than anything we've had in the past," Bailey said.
Bailey said he used to compare the Block III to the older Apache models by saying it was like driving a sports car compared to a sedan. But after flying the newest aircraft configuration, he said it's much more than that.
"Flying the Block III is truly like trying to hold back that Appaloosa stud," Bailey said. "He always wants to go."
The first two Apache Block III aircraft will replace current prototypes and be flown by test pilots from the Redstone Test Center in Alabama. The helicopters will at first be kept at the Boeing complex in Mesa, Ariz., where pilots and engineers from Redstone will work with them. Then one of the two new helicopters may eventually be placed at Redstone Arsenal, officials said.
The next five helicopters are scheduled to be finished in March and will be fielded to the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Bn., 1st Aviation Regiment at Fort Riley, Kan. The unit is part of the 1st Infantry Division and is slated to be at initial operating capability with the Apache Block III helicopters by the first quarter of fiscal year 2013, officials said. They said it's likely the 1/1st will deploy to Afghanistan with the aircraft soon after that.
The 1st Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas, is the next unit tentatively scheduled to be fielded with the Apache Block III. But that could change, Army officials were quick to point out.
Overall, the Army plans to acquire 690 Block III Apaches between now and 2026 at a production rate of roughly two battalions per year, beginning in fiscal year 2013. Some of these will be re-manufactured aircraft and some built completely new. Crosby did add that the "constrained budget environment" over the next few years could affect the acquisition rate.
"We've got to think of this as part of the overall modernization strategy of the Army today," Crosby said of the Apache Block III.
Plans also exist to field the Apache Block III with U.S. allies such as Taiwan. The Taiwan government has a contract for 30 of the new aircraft to be fielded over a 12-month period. Officials added that other coalition nations have requested demonstrations of the new aircraft's capabilities.