The first production standard Boeing AH-6i Little Bird light attack/reconnaissance helicopter has made its maiden flight, the company announced on 1 May.
The flight, which took place at Boeing's Mesa production facility in Arizona, lasted about 20 minutes and saw the helicopter flown in forward, rearward, and sideward directions at low elevations. Future tests will expand the flight envelope over the next several months.
In November 2013 Boeing disclosed it had signed its first customer for the AH-6i, which has been developed specifically for the international market (a version for the US Army is designated AH-6S). While company officials have so far declined to name that customer, IHS Jane's understands it to be the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is to receive 24 helicopters.
Developed from the 1960s-era Hughes Model 369 (OH-6 Cayuse in US Army service), the AH-6i is the latest incarnation of the venerable Little Bird-series of helicopters currently fielded by international MD 500-series operators, and the US Special Operations Command in the guise of the AH/MH-6 Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB).
The AH-6i shares a lot of the attributes that made the OH-6 and later MD 500-series helicopters so successful, including the helicopter's diminutive size (the main rotor system is only 8.33 m in diameter, and from tip-to-tail it is only about 9.95 m in length), and a highly crash-resistant A-frame with rugged skid landing gear. Also, as with previous models, the AH-6i does not use hydraulics but utilises a straight mechanical flight-control system, making it more responsive to the pilot's commands, while simplifying maintenance.
The AH-6i advances the Little Bird in terms of its powerplant, payloads, and avionics. Its full-authority digital engine control (FADEC)-equipped Rolls-Royce 250-C30R/3M powerplant (generating 650 shp but limited by the helicopter's drive system to 600 shp) is linked to a new six-bladed main rotor assembly with composite blades (compared to five metal blades before). This makes the AH-6i compliant with the US Army's 6k/95 benchmark for hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) with a typical mission weight (about 1,800 kg comprising two crew members, full fuel, and weapons), and allows it to carry a four-station weapons plank as opposed to the usual two-station plank of previous generation Little Birds.
The AH-6i's payload fit includes the Dillon M134D 7.62 mm Gatling gun, General Dynamics GAU-19 12.7 mm Gatling gun, FN Herstal M3P 12.7 mm chain gun, Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, as well as a variety of seven-shot 'dumb' or laser-guided 70 mm rocket systems.
The enhanced avionics are based on the same software as the Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter, affording it superior performance and increased interoperability, and comprises a digital 'glass' cockpit that features colour multifunctional display units for both pilots, and a reduced number of avionics boxes which brings down the aircraft's overall weight (again, feeding into an increased payload performance). As the AH-6i has been developed for the international market, all the avionics are compliant with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The AH-6i is also equipped with a chin-mounted L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensor turret.
Boeing has previously estimated a potential global market of around 700 helicopters for the Little Bird, including the US Army's Armed Aerial Scout requirement, the future of which is unclear at this time. This market is predominately geared at replacing ageing MD 500-series and AH-1 Cobra platforms.