Black Hawk helicopter a tough, versatile weapon

Copter's missions include ferrying troops to battle, doctors to attack site

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

STRATFORD, Conn. - Ask a worker here at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. about the Black Hawk helicopter and you'll hear the words "durability," "survivability" and "crashability." They'll tell you it's as rugged as your dad's old pickup truck or an ornery tractor that takes a beating and never quits.

The Black Hawk is the Army's main utility helicopter and the primary aircraft used by Special Operations units fighting Osama bin Laden and his Taliban supporters. About 1,500 Black Hawks have been made for the Army at this sprawling 2 million-square-foot plant, and they've played key roles in most major U.S. military actions since they were introduced in 1978 - from patrolling the Iron Curtain during the Cold War to the invasion of Grenada, the Persian Gulf war, and conflicts in Bosnia and Somalia.

In recent days, Black Hawks saw action when U.S. commandos attacked an airfield and a Taliban command center in southern Afghanistan. The first casualties of the war, two Army Rangers, died when a Black Hawk supporting the operation went down in Pakistan.

Special Operations units are also flying in another Sikorsky helicopter, the Air Force's H-53 J Pave Low III, a huge aircraft with a 67 foot-fuselage, powered by two 3,936-horsepower engines. The low-flying Pave Low is designed to penetrate enemy airspace undetected to move troops in and out of hostile territory.

The Sikorsky plant is about 60 miles north of New York City in a region hit hard by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and workers are feeling an extra burst of patriotism these days.

A huge red, white and blue "God Bless America" banner is draped across the front of the plant.

On the floor where the helicopters are built, a couple of large American flags and many smaller ones dot the landscape. Some were up before Sept. 11, which isn't unusual, considering that about 27 percent of the plant's 7,000 workers are veterans.

Courtney Nelson, a worker in the sheet metal department, says that "it's an absolute pleasure" to know that Sikorsky helicopters are being used to battle terrorism.

"There's pride that you feel when you see your helicopters being used for a good cause, and what happened on Sept. 11 was tragic, and America needs to respond decisively," he says.

Founder's legacy

Sixty-two years ago, Igor I. Sikorsky, a Russian immigrant, invented the world's first practical single-main-rotor helicopter and became the father of the industry.

"If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that's just about all. But a direct-lift aircraft [the helicopter] could come in and save his life," Sikorsky said of his invention.

A bust of Sikorsky sits in the lobby near the company's administrative offices. It's a ritual for visiting pilots to rub the statue's head for good luck.

Sikorsky's patented design relies on a whirling main rotor that serves as a wing and a propeller, and a smaller tail rotor that stabilizes the aircraft and keeps it from spinning out of control.

It did not take long for the military to see the helicopter as an instrument of war.

Every Black Hawk begins as a piece of sheet metal. By the time it reaches the final assembly area it has become a maze of gears, rotors, hydraulic pumps and connecting rods surrounded by hundreds of moving parts.

The UH-60A, the basic infantry squad transport helicopter, has a crew of three and carries 11 soldiers. The copters cost about $10 million apiece.

Black Hawks are also used as flying trauma centers to evacuate wounded troops, to haul supplies, to perform reconnaissance, and to pound enemy troops and armor with gunfire and rockets. Some versions are fitted with night-vision equipment for missions conducted under the cover of darkness.

When a Black Hawk revs up, its engine drive shaft is spinning at more than 20,000 revolutions per minute, the rotor head is turning at 289 rpm and the tail blade whirling at 411 rpm. Its two jet engines turn out 3,500 horsepower, giving it a top speed of about 200 mph and a maximum altitude of better than 18,000 feet.

The Black Hawk can fly higher than many other helicopters, an important factor in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. In Colombia, the military uses Black Hawks to go after drug dealers who grow coca in the mountains.

Safety measures

David Ciola, Sikorsky's technical operations training manager, says the Black Hawk was designed to "bring the boys home."

If one of the Black Hawk's two engines is knocked out, the aircraft flies well on the surviving engine. Key components, such as the intermediate gear box, the tail gear box and the main gear box, can take "ballistic wounds" and lose all of their lubrication fluids, and the Black Hawk can fly for up to an hour, Ciola says.

"Imagine the engine in your car, you lose all the oil, and how much time do you have? Maybe three minutes."

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