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09 June 2016

Boeing AH-6I Production Under Way for Saudi Arabain FMS Order

Boeing is now assembling and will begin flight testing the first of 24 AH-6I (International) Little Birds for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). The assembly line at Boeing’s Mesa facility has seven of the first batch under assembly with a schedule for the last aircraft to be added to the line in February 2017. The production rate has been established at two aircraft per month.

Boeing's AH-6i Little Bird test aircraft. (All photos via author)

The first pilots who will help to train the Saudi pilots are due to begin training with US instructors this summer and will be followed by the arrival of SANG trainee pilots later in the year.

On 1 April 2016, the Federal Business opportunity website announced a, “requirement for production and delivery of seventy-two (72) AH-6i aircraft proprietary to the OEM (The Boeing Company, Defense, Space & Security),” in support of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers.

Under the requirements it stipulated that the, “interested party shall be capable of producing and delivering up to 24 AH-6i aircraft annually for a total of 72 aircraft over a three year period.” That provides Boeing with a contracted permission to conduct further sales to any potential international customers. Jordan at one time was also interested in procuring the AH-6 but no FMS contract has yet been received.

Only the first 24 production AH-6Is have been officially allocated to the SANG. The production requirement was preceded by an announcement by the US Department of Defense (DoD) contract office on 29 August 2014 that Boeing had been awarded a $234.7 million contract for long lead items including spares and ground support equipment for the delivery of 24 AH-6I aircraft. It concluded that the contract, “involves foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia.”

The basic airframe of the AH-6I is supplied by MD Helicopters from its facility in  Monterrey, Mexico, and delivered to Boeing’s Mesa facility where systems integration and final assembly takes place. This arrangement is in place for the first 24 aircraft with no further commitment beyond that.

AH-6i testbed aircraft at Boeing's Mesa production facility.

Little Bird; Big Punch

The AH-6 Little Bird is one of the helicopters of choice used by the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) with the designation MH-6/AH-6M due to its small size, agile performance (especially at low level) and ability to carry a range of weapons which typically including M260 2.75" HYDRA rockets, M134 miniguns, AGM-114 HELLFITRE laser-guided anti-tank missiles and GAU-19/B .50 cal 3-barrel gatling guns.

Boeing officials have often describe the single engine AH-6 as a mini APACHE due to its commonality of systems with larger attack helicopter. Its mission systems computer can process and share data while the Rolls Royce 250-C30R/3M 650shp turboshaft engine has Full authority digital engine control (FADEC) which considerably assists the pilot especially when conducting agile ground support missions.

At the Boeing Media Trip 2016, the company showcased an AH-6i testbed aircraft at its Mesa production facility.

Speaking at the Army Aviation annual conference in May, Maj.Gen.Clay Hutmacher, deputy commanding general, US Army Special Operations Command talked about the difficulty his command was facing in their search to eventually replace the AH-6 for a newer aircraft. “We need to preserve a little ‘street fighter’ as we land in the streets all the time,” he said. The small rotor diameter and low profile made it a good ground support asset he confirmed.

Andrew Drwiega, Mesa, AZ