Boeing’s newest attack helicopter is known by its nickname and smaller size compared with the AH-64 Apache—but those attributes don’t define the AH-6 “Little Bird.”
The light attack and reconnaissance helicopter has a pedigreed background. U.S. Special Forces have used a variant of the AH-6 model for years, and the model’s heritage can be traced back to a helicopter first developed in the 1960s.
The Little Birds that Boeing is building now may look similar to their predecessors, but today’s version is substantially more capable. The AH-6 flies higher, goes faster, and carries more payload, said Josie Woody, AH-6 program manager.
“There’s a significant payload capacity, and it can be used as a light-attack aircraft, for reconnaissance, search and rescue,” Woody said. “It was built for the mission, with a lot of technology, flexibility and affordability.”
Todd Brown, chief test pilot for the AH-6 program, said the helicopter boasts the highest power-to-weight ratio in its class, making it well-suited for a variety of uses, from direct combat actions to security and escort flights.
“It’s very agile. It has a very powerful engine, so it’s very maneuverable and quick,” Brown said. That helps when providing close-range support for ground troops and operating in crowded urban settings. The AH-6 also performs well in hot and high-altitude locations, according to program officials.
Those demonstrated capabilities already have attracted customers, and a production line is up and running at Boeing’s rotorcraft assembly factory in Mesa, Ariz. The first production AH-6, one of 24 ordered by a Middle Eastern ally, is expected to fly soon.
David Renteria, Final Assembly manager for the AH-6 program, has plenty of experience building the Apache helicopter. He said lessons he and others learned from assembling the AH-64E model have been invaluable on the new Little Bird line.
“We’re learning on a daily basis,” Renteria said. “This is a totally different build process, but we can implement best practices and Lean initiatives learned on the Apache line and apply them to this new production line.”
The production line team, which is running two shifts at present, recruited talent from the Apache line and took other steps to start strong. “They have done everything possible to make it successful,” Woody said.
With a rounded cockpit, smaller frame and T-shaped tail stabilizer, the AH-6’s differences from the larger Apache are evident at first glance. But the two models share many common systems, especially evident in the weapons management and cockpit control systems. “They look almost identical in the cockpit,” Brown said.
That commonality is a benefit for military forces that already fly the Apache and have pilots familiar with its cockpit systems. And smaller militaries aren’t in the position to procure the Apache can still benefit from the AH-64’s advanced technology for weapons management, obstacle avoidance and other systems in a smaller, less expensive rotorcraft, Woody said.
The helicopter is able to carry Hellfire missiles, laser-guided rockets and guns of several calibers, aided by sensors and targeting systems that are tied into the pilot and co-pilot’s cockpit controls.
The AH-6 has a range of 179 nautical miles (206 miles, or 331 kilometers) and a maximum cruise speed of 125 knots (144 mph, or 232 kilometers per hour), as well as the ability to fly well at extremely low, “nap-of-the-earth” altitudes to avoid detection.
In addition to the existing launch order, Woody said the helicopter has attracted interest from militaries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia Pacific region. As the first production models start flying, she and others in the program expect more potential customers will order the aircraft.
With developmental flight-testing of the Little Bird complete and production underway, the test pilots in Mesa are preparing training for the first customer pilots. Renteria said he can’t wait to see that first production model of the AH-6 Little Bird take its initial flight. For now, he’s enjoying the challenge of a new production line after a couple of decades with the Apache program.
“I get to start a new program and see it through its infancy,” he said. “And to see the first ones on the production line, that’s a different feeling … it’s exciting.”