The Army's Joint Heavy Lift helicopter program aims to improve or replace the aging twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook that has been in service in various roles since 1961, said Dr. Bill McCorkle, director of the Aviation Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center on Redstone Arsenal.
The Chinook is being used heavily by the Army in Afghanistan because of its heavy-lift capacity.
Ten U.S. soldiers died when their during combat operations aimed at flushing out Taliban and al Qaeda militants from remote mountains in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said Saturday.
The Chinook can cruise at about 201 miles per hour and move up to 27,000 pounds or about 55 troops.
McCorkle said the heavy-lift development is aimed at developing a helicopter that can cruise at speeds ranging from 290 to 350 mph and lift 41,000 to 55,000 pounds.
The Department of Defense is spending about $30 million on five concept studies, McCorkle said, ranging from an upgraded Chinook to a new helicopter design. The concept study should be wrapped up by the end of 2007, McCorkle said, and from there the Pentagon will decide if the helicopter program should move into a technology development phase.
Also being studied are tilt-rotor variations, which can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane. The Marines now fly a tilt-rotor aircraft called the V-22 Osprey, which has .
McCorkle said the Marines might benefit from the advanced study. "It's mostly an Army show at the moment," he said. "My interest in it is to try to get a higher-speed helicopter."
McCorkle said the Navy and Air Force are also looking at heavy-lift helicopter development "and have put in a little money, around $1 million, towards the study phase."
The Chinook, along with other Army helicopter programs such as the UH-60 Black Hawk and the AH-64 Apache, is managed by the Army Aviation and Missile Command on Redstone.
Designing and building a new helicopter won't be easy because it will end up costing billions of dollars and require a long-term commitment, said Paul Bogosian, program executive officer for aviation on Redstone.
"The key is finding a way to build an aircraft that can meet the Army needs and the Navy needs but keep costs down," Bogosian said. "That is very difficult sometimes."
The Navy has different requirements than the Army, Bogosian said, because Navy aircraft need to be stored on a ship or aircraft carrier. "The blades have to retract or fold, and there are other requirements the Navy had the Army doesn't," he said.
The Navy specifications can increase the price of an aircraft even if the Army doesn't need or use them.
Bogosian doesn't expect a new heavy-lift helicopter to enter service soon, he said. "This is a project that will be at least 2020 or later before it comes about. It will take a long-term commitment from Congress to get this built," he said.