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New Cabs or Old ?

We look at the role of ex military helicopters in the civilian world.

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In the helicopter world, money talks. Sometimes the “money” is the cost of acquisition, sometimes direct cost per flight hour and, at other times, the cost of maintenance. Vendors and customers veer and haul between these 3 parameters, trading equipment and capability, until an affordable compromise is reached where the requirements are met in a fixed affordability “envelope”. In the civil world, such negotiations have taken place between companies/individuals and OEMs, brokers, financiers and a healthy second-hand market. However, the recent HAI Heli Expo in Dallas suggests that for certain operators in niche markets, a new option is emerging; that of refurbished ex-military aircraft. 

What’s on the Table?

Since the cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche project, the US Army had reinvested heavily in its legacy platforms. The money saved from the Comanche cancellation enabled thousands of OH-58s, UH-60s, CH-47s and AH-64s to be upgraded to fight the insurgent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, times and requirements change and the US Army finds itself with an unaccustomed degree of financial challenge yet with ambitious and expensive plans for future re-equipment. These pressures have led to the release into the civilian market of several older airframes. The CH-47, long established with Columbia Helicopters in BV-234[1] guise has recently started to appear in the civil world for heavy lift and firefighting operations. The US Army are slowly divesting some of the oldest CH-47Ds in the inventory (some of them being remanufactured A/B/C models that have already been back to Boeing for upgrade in the past) as the service migrates to the CH-47F standard, which has a number of structural differences to older D model airframes. It is simply more economical to cohere around one standardised design when possible. There were no fewer than five civil registered UH-60s at this year’s Heli Expo, suggesting that the ‘Hawk’ has a bright future in the civil field too. The US Army is running a program called BEST (Blackhawk Exchange and Sales Team) which is aiming to divest the US Army of between 400-800 early model UH-60s to offset the acquisition and running costs of an upgraded medium lift fleet of UH-60Ms. Having learnt from the sale of 10 CH-47Ds by PM Cargo, Utility Helicopters Program Office (UHPO)[2] has been able to trade UH-60s back to LM/Sikorsky for refurbishment for overseas militaries, helping to offset the costs of new-build UH-60Ms, and onto the open civil market through GSA (General Services Administration) auctions ( if you fancy taking a look….). The OH-58/TH-67 aircraft, both based on the civil B206, have been withdrawn from service in toto by the Army. The former has seen its duties assumed by a contentious shift in assets between the regular army and National Guard (the latter giving up its AH-64s in return for UH-60s and UH-72 Lakotas). The latter, in effect N-Registered B206B-3s purchased by the US Army in the early 90s as a basic helicopter instructional airframe and as an IFR trainer. The TH-67 has, in another controversial move, also been replaced by the UH-72, effectively ending single-engine helicopter training (and flying…) in the US Army. Therefore, a broad range of ex-military helicopters from the US Army are being made available for Government agencies and civil companies to purchase. But, to what end?

What Can Ex-Military Helicopters Be Used For?

The “drip-feed” of ex-military aircraft into the civil sector is nothing new. For decades, police and fire-fighting organisations have received often gratis, a number of helicopters (such as the venerable UH-1) to assist with the para-military style of operations they conduct. What’s different now is the sheer number and spectrum of machines potentially coming to the market. Whereas the CH-47D will likely stay a rare bird in civil guise due to high operating costs (staying on the outsize sling load and firefighting domains) the much more affordable and available UH-60 and OH-58/TH-67 may become a relatively common sight. The five UH60s in Dallas for HAI were broadly aiming at the same para-military / para-republic ‘end user’. Several of the machines was clearly aimed at the police/SWAT market, with EO/IR sensors and provision for ‘sensor operator’ stations in the cabin. For higher threat environments, an assortment of gun and rocket pods were on display, as well as fast roping frames for rapidly deploying personnel from the hover. Discussions with the various vendors suggested that para-military and firefighting were indeed seen as ideal roles for the UH-60, but there was also talk of taking LM/Sikorsky on at its own game and refurbishing aircraft for foreign military users. The OH58/TH-67 at prima facie appears to be ideal in the light law enforcement and training roles. As surplus aircraft, the pricing can seem very attractive. The CH-47Ds sold though GSA for between $2-3.5 million (depending on cycle times and condition) and the UH-60As have sold for as little as $300 thousand. Several police departments have also benefitted from free surplus TH-67s, in some cases using them to replace previously released early model OH-58s.

Therefore, it seems that you can acquire very capable ex-military machines for much less money than the equivalent civil machines. What’s the catch? As it turns out, there are quite a few….


The Catch(es)

The prime issue with these seemingly good value second-hand machines is that of certification. The FAA in the US recognise these aircraft (with the notable exception of the TH-67) as certifiable only in the Restricted/Utility categories. This makes them ideal for niche roles such as firefighting, police and other State-endorsed tasks, but of little use in General or Business aviation. There are additional issues as well:

  • 1.Competition. It would do the civil helicopter market little good during a time of relative downturn in a key area, Oil & Gas, if the market were flooded with cheap utility machines. Several manufacturers have opposed the sale of these airframes on these grounds. Bell Textron in particular, have been concerned about the outflow of the OH-58/TH-67 family into the civilian marketplace, wary of the pressure they may place on orders for their current stable of light single-engine helicopters. To protect their market position, and that of the multitude of avionic and system sub-contractors, Bell have pressed hard through political channels to restrict the number of surplus airframes entering the resale market. Preferably they would like the aircraft scrapped but need to tread carefully around the wishes of such an important customer.

  • 2.Obsolescence. The prime reason why the Army are divesting these airframes is that they are either ‘tired’ or are running into an obsolescence brick wall. By trading/disposing these airframes the Army is re-equipping itself with aircraft that are fit for purpose to operate both in the battlespace and airspace of tomorrow. Issues such as CNS/ATM requirements and ADS-B capability pose real problems to “second users” as well as the somewhat more prosaic problem of spares and servicing. At a conference that I chaired recently, a foreign military that had taken on several surplus OH-58s saw the provision of spares after 3-4 years as a genuine problem. The short-term solution is quite straightforward; buy additional airframes to break for spares. This solution only takes you so far down the line before calendar servicing and product life forces you into difficult, and potentially expensive, upgrades or replacements. At HAI in Dallas earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to fly and asses Rogerson-Kratos’ approach to obsolescence management on their remanufactured UH-60 demonstrator. A flight test report is available to read in our last issue of HeliOps. In summary though, they have stripped out the obsolescent analogue UH-60A cockpit and replaced it with a certified digital cockpit that incorporates several common civil avionics, such as Garmin Comm/Nav units. Rogerson-Kratos have also ensured their modification is compatible with current and future airspace / comms regulation and, additionally, have tried to “future proof” the aircraft with an industry standard Open Architecture avionics system. This approach is key to ensuring the longevity of these “second-user” airframes in the civil world.

  • 3.ITAR. The State Department sponsored International Traffic in Arms Regulations is a major barrier to selling US equipment overseas. Limitations on what can be sold and to whom (with further obligations on the “End User” for disposal) can place a further burden on would be purchasers. Several of the companies touting the UH-60 have taken ITAR to heart, and have taken the decision to replace ITAR items with commercial equivalents. However, the cost of replacing these components, and associated qualification and certification, eats away at the benefit accrued by the initial low purchase price.

  • 4.Military Construction. Most military aircraft are over-engineered as they expect to encounter severe operating environments in peace and war time, as well as, in the latter, the possibility of battle damage. Therefore, in general, helicopters designed to military specifications tend to be heavier with larger damage tolerances than their civilian equivalents. Much of this weight growth may well be in armour, shielding thickness in cable runs and the desire to separate important duplex or triplex systems to increase battle-damage tolerance. Removing some of this weight can be simple (provided CoG limits are adhered to) but others are inherent to the design of the airframe. The military is happy to accept these improved characteristics in exchange for the slightly higher fuel burn, but for a potential civil operator every $ counts. Ironically, in the new military helicopter market, “Dual Certified” designs with civil design philosophy (such as the Airbus Helicopters H145M and AW139M) are viewed with a degree of scepticism over their ability to survive the harsh operating environments and potential hostile fire.

  • 5.The Cost. Seemingly this is counter-intuitive. Part of the attraction for purchasing ex-military aircraft is the relatively cheap acquisition cost and the opportunity, at least in the first few years of operation, to purchase additional airframes to cannibalise for spares. However, if the purchaser is after a solution in the medium to long term then the costs start to add up. A UH60A purchased for $500 thousand at a GSA auction will have a short “shelf life” due to the lifecycle of major components and looming obsolescence. By the time that an after-market company has overhauled the major components and fitted civil standard, certified, avionics than initial outlay has, potentially, increased by a factor of 10. For $5 Million you can get an awful lot of new build civil helicopter (close to a new H135 or a nearly-new H145 for example) which will come warrantied and with a full FAR/CS 27/29 certification and support network. Throw in pilot conversion costs, and the higher fuel burn, and that price advantage looks even thinner. But an EC135 will not sling-load the same as a UH-60 (1300Kg vs 3600Kg) nor carry an eight-man SWAT team with all of their equipment. 


The Verdict

As suggested at the end of the last paragraph, the choice to go ex-military or pure civilian for your aircraft fleet depends upon the Operators requirements. For many, the need to fly passengers as CAT/PT precludes the purchase of airframes in the Restricted/Utility category. For others, however, operating in those niche firefighting, para-republic and para-military roles, the lure of cheap, rugged and capable military machines at a seemingly bargain price is very tempting. The advent of a broad selection of after-market vendors modifying, maintaining and certifying aircraft for these roles only makes the choice even more difficult for fleet managers.


[1]A civil variant of the CH-47 designed and built for the offshore Oil& Gas industry. Distinguishable from a military CH-47 by the “radar nose” and rows of small cabin passenger windows.

[2]PM Cargo are the US Army organisation that supports the CH-47, the UHPO performs the same function for UH60. Both are part of PEO (Program Executive Office) Aviation, based at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.

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