Thursday, July 31, 2014

A rather remarkable rotary story—the unmanned K-MAX has just completed a three year Afghanistan tour delivering supplies to the Marines—and its performance has been exemplary. Yes, I did say “unmanned.”

"There is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war."

Carl von Clausevitz

The K-MAX helicopter can fly cargo delivery missions without a human at the controls.

Delivering supplies by road in hostile territory is innately hazardous. The roads in Afghanistan—where they exist—leave a great deal to be desired—and then there is the IED threat. Add in gunfire and RPGs for good measure.

Delivering by manned helicopter is expensive.

The decision was taken to try a third alternative—to use an unmanned helicopter.

The first point to note here is that the Kaman K-1200 K-MAX isn’t flown remotely by some pilot back in Las Vegas (as so many drones are). In this case the aircraft is programmed to fly a mission and does just that—all on its own. However, the mission can changed in the air if need be.

The original idea was for a six month mission lugging around 750 pound pallets of supplies. Performance was so exceptional that two moved 30,000 pounds in a single day (against a target of 6,000 pounds).

Some data:

  • One was ready to fly 94 percent of the time (the other was taken out of service after a hard landing). 94 is a truly awesome figure for something as innately complex as a helicopter—especially when operating under Afghani conditions. The great thing about the KMAX is that although it has everything it needs, it is relatively simple (by helicopter standards). It is also impressively robust. It all speaks of thoroughly good design.
  • 1.4 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight.
  • Cost $1,300 per flying hour.
  • Over three years, the KMAX lifted more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo.
  • The aircraft can lift 6,000 pound loads at sea level and 4,000 pounds at 15,000 feet.
  • Certified in 1994, the Kaman helicopter was designed for heavy duties like logging operations, power line construction, firefighting, and installing ski lifts. It can haul 6,000-pound loads at sea level and 4,000 pounds at 15,000 feet. That strength is partly thanks to Kaman’s use of two intermeshing rotors on top of the aircraft. The setup eliminates the need for a tail rotor, which is usually needed to keep the aircraft from spinning uncontrollably, but sucks up about 30 percent of the engine’s power. Dropping the blades in back preserves that juice for lifting power. It also keeps the bird’s center of gravity over its payload hook, so carrying heavy loads is easier.

As a matter of interest, I worked with some Kaman engineers briefly  while I was on a DARPA assignment for Piasecki Aircraft back in 2009. They were singularly impressive.

The implications of this success are profound because the Achilles Heel of every military operation is, traditionally, road-based supply. Road convoys are long and difficult to protect.

Air—in this age of MANPADS and automatic weapons is not invulnerable, of course, but the odds are tilted in your favor. It will be fascinating to see how far the military progress this. The Army are experimenting with the KMAX right now. Reflect that a unit—free of its dependence on roads—has a greatly increased ability to maneuver—and to be unpredictable. On the other hand, fuel, water, and ammunitions are all heavy and bulky—so how much could you really do from the air? It’s about time we tested that out.

The project was actually managed by Lockheed Martin. They seem to have done a good job, but I think the real credit belongs to Kaman.

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