When the first MH-139 “Grey Wolf” helicopter touched down at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, it marked two surprising firsts: Based on an Agusta Westland AW139 civilian helicopter, it is the first helicopter procured directly by the Air Force, and the first major acquisition by Air Force Global Strike Command.
The MH-139 will replace the aging UH-1N Huey and will primarily be used to patrol AFGSC’s sprawling missile fields.
“We’re going to do more things with this aircraft than we could ever do with the Huey,” AFGSC Commander Gen. Timothy Ray said when the first MH-139 was delivered in mid-December. “It even has the new car smell.”
The Eglin ceremony came just over one year after a team of Boeing and Leonardo won the competition and began a developmental and operational test cycle intended to achieve initial operating capability by 2021.
The Air Force first set the requirements for the Huey replacement as part of the Common Vertical Lift Support Program in 2007, even before AFGSC was established. At the time, most of the Huey fleet was almost 40 years old, with limits placed on its range and speed, hampering mission performance both in the missile fields and shuttling VIPs around the Washington area.
Back then, initial operating capability was to come around 2015, but changing priorities and budget cuts forced the Air Force to first delay, then cancel, the program in 2013. Officials started over in 2015 and released a formal request for proposals in July 2017. Boeing and Leonardo teamed up to offer this variant of the AW139, while Sikorsky offered a variant of its H-60. Then Sikorsky filed a pre-award protest in 2018 with the Government Accountability Office over how intellectual property rights would be handled. GAO rejected the complaint.
Still the program lagged. Gen. John Hyten, then-commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told lawmakers in 2017, “It’s a helicopter, for gosh sakes. We’ve been building helicopters for decades. … I don’t understand why the heck it is so difficult.”
One year later Hyten was back before Congress saying, “We’re going to get a new helicopter, if I’m going to die trying or kill somebody to do it.”
In September 2018, the Air Force finally pulled the trigger and awarded Boeing-Leonardo a $2.38 billion contract for up to 84 MH-139, some 41 percent less than the original cost estimate for the program.
We’re going to do more things with this aircraft than we could ever do with the Huey.Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Timothy Ray
“Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said when the award was announced.
Finally, 14 months after the contract was awarded, the first MH-139 for the Air Force touched down at Eglin in December, and the Air Force announced the helicopter’s new name—Grey Wolf.
AFGSC chose the name from among suggestions submitted by the units and aircrews that will operate the aircraft. The choice honors a species native to the western plains where the helicopters will operate.
Grey wolves strike “fear in the hearts of many,” Ray said. “Its range is absolutely inherent to the intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] fields we have.
“As they hunt as a pack, they attack as one, they bring the force of many,” he said. “That’s exactly how you need to approach the nuclear security mission.”
At Eglin, a small number of Airmen and a few aircraft are starting up developmental testing. Five pilots and six special mission aviators will put four helicopters through the ringer in the Florida panhandle before the helicopters and crews move north to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, for operational testing next year.
The crews assigned to Eglin come from all of the areas and mission sets the UH-1Ns serve. “We’re really focused on mission representation for all our customers—Global Strike, Air Force District of Washington, Air Education and Training Command,” said Lt. Col. Mary Clark, commander of detachment 7 at Eglin, which is overseeing the developmental testing along with Eglin’s 413th Flight Test Squadron.
The 413th FLTS is also overseeing developmental testing of the HH-60W combat rescue helicopter, which is replacing the HH-60G Pave Hawk, meaning the squadron will be involved with the development of the Air Force’s entire future helicopter force. That’s a “blessing and a curse,” Clark said, because it means the MH-139 and HH-60W crews will have to share airspace and resources.
Airmen working with the MH-139 must ensure that the Grey Wolf meets all the requirements the Air Force contracted for, including speed, handling, payload, and more.
Given the operational history of the AW139, the helicopter has already proven to be leaps and bounds ahead of the Huey. “It goes further, faster, flies longer, and carries a lot more people,” Clark said.
The AW139 is rated for a cruising speed of 130-140 knots with a max speed of 167, compared to 90-100 knots for the aged Huey. Range is about 778 miles vs. just over 300 miles for the Huey, according to the Air Force. These characteristics will play a large part in how the MH-139 can protect convoys and respond when needed at the Air Force’s expansive missile ranges.
The Grey Wolf is armored and has countermeasures on board, along with a pintle-mounted machine gun capability. Its modern avionics enable flying in poor weather, and an improved four-axis autopilot and improved automation that “helps a pilot in a high-workload situation,” Clark said. “It’s almost like having a third pilot with you.”
The MH-139 is also outfitted with a forward-looking infrared camera system, which will be used both to help crews find survivors for possible rescue missions and help target “bad guys,” Clark said.
There are hundreds of test points to accomplish, and each one requires “days and days of work behind the scenes” in addition to just the flying hours, with pre-briefing and post-briefing, test plan development, etc.
This first test plan is linear and will focus on “really binary” characteristics of the aircraft.
Does it “fly as fast as Boeing said it can fly? Does it carry as many people as they say it carries? Black and white things,” Clark said. Then, as tests progress, “we’ll start getting really into the meat of it, its handling qualities, how the aircraft performs with different inputs, conditions, power settings.”
“While we’ve militarized it, the basic platform has been known for so long,” Clark said. This part of the testing should be relatively brief. But after the move to Malmstrom, tentatively scheduled for 2021, crews will develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures [TTPs] for the aircraft. This is where the background of the crews becomes integral to the future of the MH-139, according to Clark. For example, determining how best to operate in poor weather, or to operate with close overwatch of a convoy, requires having flown that mission in the past. For the continuity of government missions in the Air Force District of Washington, speed, responsiveness, and range for “getting away from the threat” will be important, as will the aircraft’s secure radios and advanced avionics. Similarly, a small unit at Yokota Air Base, Japan, which flies UH-1Ns in a comparable role over the Tokyo region, must also be supported. Crews in the test unit will have this background to apply to the test process, as well.
The Huey also has a big role for Air Education and Training Command, flying for survival, evasion, resistant, and escape training for aircrews. To be ready for this mission, crews need to establish TTPs for parachuting out of the aircraft and using its rescue hoist.
This test process will play out as production of the aircraft ramps up. Full-rate production is expected in 2023, with deliveries anticipated at a rate of 10 per year into the early 2030s.
“We’re going as fast as we can, but we’re going to do it right,” Clark said. “We’re going to get it to the warfighter as soon as possible. That’s what we’re really trying to do, but we’re not going to do that at the expense of safety and compromising requirements. We’re going to do it right, and we’re really excited.”
In the meantime, Hueys will continue to roam the missile fields and serve other current missions. Global Strike has upgraded the aircraft, including fuel and armament upgrades, to keep it relevant to ensure there is no “lapse in any mission,” Clark said. Airmen at the missile bases have deployed fuel bladders so crews can land and refuel themselves in the middle of a mission if needed. Airmen have been forced to fly longer patrols and work longer hours to ensure the missile security mission is accomplished with the old helicopter.
“We know the Huey has been humping it,” Clark said “We’ve known it for a while, and had to get by with fixes, Band-Aids, I guess, to make sure we’re doing our mission as prescribed, in response to the threat. We’re doing it on the backs of Airmen, working longer shifts, security forces doing longer patrols. … We’ve been doing [this mission], but it’s so much better to do that smarter.”