View Full Version : Copters Recalled From Boneyard

08-22-2005, 09:24 PM
Copters recalled from boneyard
Wars eating away at Marines' fleet


At Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, a retired Navy helicopter is towed off a C-5 transport plane. It is one of three copters stored roughly 10 years in the Arizona desert that were flown to Cherry Point to be rebuilt for the Marine Corps.

By JAY PRICE, Staff Writer

CHERRY POINT MARINE CORPS AIR STATION -- Earlier this month, a pair of hulking transport planes touched down and disgorged the newest additions to the Marine Corps helicopter fleet: three MH-53E Sea Dragons that had been sitting in an aircraft "boneyard" in the Arizona desert for about a decade.

The civilian maintenance workers at Cherry Point's Naval Air Depot will clean, strip and transform the worn-out helicopters into the Marine version of the aircraft, the Super Stallion, a process that could take 20 months. This is the first time that retired choppers such as these have been resuscitated, and the challenges are unique: Not only have the helicopters been outside about 10 years, but the Super Stallion has evolved with continuous major upgrades.

Restoring the helicopters, which have been out of production since 1999, is an extraordinary step; but the Marines have little choice: They're running out of big choppers.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking a bite out of their deteriorating helicopter fleet, not just in aircraft lost -- six Super Stallions have been destroyed in crashes since 2001 -- but also in hours that the helicopters are flying.

"They're coasting on legacy fleets," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting company in Fairfax, Va. "They planned to coast indefinitely ... and it would have worked just fine if it hadn't been for Afghanistan and Iraq."

The Super Stallion is the Corps' only heavy lift helicopter, and its workhorse. It moves large amounts of cargo and troops long distances and performs rescue missions. It can carry up to 55 Marines and can use slings to transport heavy equipment such as Humvees or even small armored vehicles.

The Marines' fleet of 150 is working hard.

The two wars have pushed helicopters into a bigger military role than at any time since the Vietnam era. In Iraq, choppers are vital not only for the usual reasons -- because they can quickly move troops, supplies and equipment between points without runways -- but also because roadside bombs have become the insurgents' deadliest weapon. In Afghanistan, roads are few, and broad swaths of rugged territory are impassable by ground vehicles.

A replacement helicopter, designated the CH-53X, is in the works; but it is not far along. The Marines hope to sign a contract this fall to begin development, said John Milliman, a helicopter acquisition programs spokesman at Patuxent River Marine Air Station in Maryland.

It will probably be at least 2015 before the replacement choppers are deployed, he said. But the service life of a Super Stallion is 6,120 hours in operation, and current estimates are that the Corps will have to start parking about 15 copters a year in 2010.

That leaves five years in which the Marines' fleet of heavy lift helicopters will dwindle before replacements start coming into service.

How will they fill the gap?

"Ask me when we get there," Milliman said. "We will cover it somehow. I know we've got great minds working on it."

Asked whether the helicopter supply would have lasted through that gap without the wars, he said: "That is a reasonable supposition."

Last week, the three dark-gray Sea Dragons sat on a concrete apron outside the Cherry Point depot's hangars, their rotor blades, exterior fuel tanks and various hatches detached. Their rear loading ramps gaped, and larger parts such as tail fins were tucked inside.

The Navy paint, which will eventually be replaced by the pale gray Marine color scheme, was faded and splotched. Inside, they had the musty smell of vintage cars.

The first will be wheeled into the hangar late this month.

"When we're done, the Marines will never know that this was a Navy bird, or that it had been sitting in storage," said Lt. Col. A.P. Camele, director of operations at the depot.

The Marine Corps has requested money to rebuild two more Stallions from the boneyard, said Capt. Jerome Bryant, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

Aboulafia, the analyst, said the wars are not the only cause of the chopper shortage. He also blames the long-troubled V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor development program, the costs of which have soared.

That aircraft -- which can take off like a helicopter, then rotate its engines to go forward like an airplane -- has been in development since 1983. Its setbacks include two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 Marines and a scandal over falsified maintenance records. The program has repeatedly seemed close to being canceled, but now appears on track for full production.

The Osprey is designated a "medium-lift" aircraft, meaning it carries fewer troops and less cargo than the Super Stallion. It is planned as the replacement for the smaller CH-46 chopper.

The Marines have spent $13.4 billion on the Osprey, said Ward Carroll, a spokesman for the program. They have spent or obligated $111.8 million for the replacement for the Super Stallion, Milliman said.

"The Marines have put all their lift eggs in one basket, the V-22," Aboulafia said.

Corps officials thought buying other aircraft would not only divert money from the Osprey -- long seen by the Marines as their most important aircraft program -- but could reduce the need for the vulnerable Osprey in the eyes of budget makers in Washington, he said.

Milliman said the Osprey and the Super Stallion have little overlap in their missions. The Osprey's problems have made it a convenient target for critics, he said.

At least part of the solution to the Super Stallion shortage, Milliman said, could involve the Cherry Point depot and the 14 other rebuildable helicopters sitting in the Arizona boneyard, formally called the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center. The boneyard is a combination junkyard and storage lot for military and Coast Guard aircraft that can be brought back into U.S. service or sold to allies.

There are 4,300 aircraft there dating to 1957, and most are suitable only for parts, said Terry Vanden-Heuvel, a spokeswoman there.

Before they're stored, fuel is drained and armaments and classified systems removed. Openings are sealed with tape and paper, then spray-coated with plastic. The low rainfall and humidity and the alkaline soil hold corrosion to a minimum.

The civilian depot workers -- officials there call them artisans -- perform major maintenance on helicopters for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps as well as the Marines' vertical takeoff Harrier jets and the presidential helicopter fleet. They are adept at maintaining aircraft that have been out of production for decades: They fashion new parts or devise techniques to replace components originally expected to outlive the aircraft. In the giant, spotless hangar where depot workers maintain Stallions, more than a dozen sit in various states of disassembly.

Military aircraft aren't finished once they're constructed: They evolve as technology changes. Because the three Sea Dragons have been out of service for about a decade, more than 80 major system upgrades must be performed -- engine improvements, navigation equipment, and systems designed to protect the choppers from enemy missiles. When complete, the helicopters won't be considered new, but should last as long as others in the fleet with the same hours. One has about half its service life left, the others about one-third.

The task is so unusual that the depot workers will start with just one aircraft this week and build a body of experience before starting on the other two, said Dan Anthony, who is in charge of scheduling H-53 work at the depot

They'll do it at what appears to be a bargain price compared with the $105 million estimated cost for each Osprey, or the $30 million the last new Super Stallions cost in 1999.

Camele, the operations director, said the depot expects to put all three Stallions back in service in top condition for $15 million.

(Staff writer Joseph Neff contributed to this report.)