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Brownout Accidents Plague CSAR-X Helicopter: Controversy Surrounds Air Force Selection

June 21, 2007 

 

The H-47 Chinook clocked only 7 percent of all U.S. Army helicopter flight hours between February 2003 and June 2005, yet accounted for 30 percent of all brownout mishaps between fiscal years 2002 and 2005.  According to Aerospace Daily and Defense Report yesterday, "Congressional lawmakers are reviewing downwash data for the helicopters that competed for the U.S. Air Force's combat, search and rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter replacement fleet to make sure rescue operations can be done safely." As part of this review, Congress should also look at Army data which show that the Chinook disproportionately suffers accidents from brownout (swirling dust and sand) compared to the rest of the helicopter fleet.

Boeing's H-47 Chinook helicopter was selected for the $10 to $15 billion combat, search, and rescue (CSAR-X) contract last year, but the contract is being re-bid in response to protests by competition.

POGO recommends that the Air Force make a fair comparison of the bidder's proposals on the basis of this and all the other key performance parameters, and that the comparison and standards for comparison be made as transparent as possible to the bidders.

CSAR-X program documents clearly state the need for a helicopter which does not have a rotor downwash that will impede operations.  According to the June 16, 2005, Capability Development Document for Combat Search and Rescue Replacement Vehicle (CSAR-X)/Personnel Recovery Vehicle (PRV):

The downwash produced by the CSAR-X (PRV), at mid-mission gross weight, in and around the recovery vehicle during a hover in all operational environments must not impede safe and successful recovery of isolated personnel. These environments include, but not limited to, heavily forested steep mountainous, smooth-level, rough-level, smooth-sloped, and roughsloped terrain in calm and high crosswind conditions. Loose particles such as tree limbs, sand, snow, water or rocks in the hover zone at mid-mission gross weights with SCL in Appendix G must not prevent the Recovery Team or injured and un-injured isolated personnel from conducting safe AIE operations (providing emergency life saving measures to isolated personnel, placement of a non-ambulatory personnel in a hoist recovery device, overland movement, self protection, communication, and swimming). (Emphasis added)

According to POGO Defense Investigator Nick Schwellenbach, however, The Air Force seems to have ignored its own requirement when it picked the Chinook.”

Despite the rotor downwash requirement, the initial competition picked a helicopter—Boeing’s  Chinook—that produces significant downwash, and is prone to accidents due to brownout (swirling sand and dust caused by downwash).  The May 2005 article “Brownout on the Battlefield,” in FlightFax, a magazine by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center,

In the past 5 years, there have been 11 Class A, B, and C aviation accidents involving Chinook aircraft with brownouts being the trigger event.  These mishaps have resulted in 16 non-fatal injuries and equipment damage costs in excess of $37 million.

***

All aircraft will kick up dust, but the Chinook produces the largest dust because of the size of its rotor system and its weight.  (Emphasis added)

A look at data compiled by the U.S. Army shows that the Chinook disproportionately suffers from brownout, and other mishaps and accidents when compared to the overall U.S. helicopter fleet. 



Army Aircraft Mishaps/Accidents and
 Percentage of Chinook Accidents


U.S. ARMY BROWNOUT (BO) RELATED ACCIDENTS*
FY
C/MH-
47D/E BO
Mishaps
All USA Helo BO Mishaps
H-47 % of All BO Mishaps
2005
1
3
33%
2004
2
8
25%
2003
4
22
18%
2002
5
8
63%
Total
12
41
29%
U.S. ARMY A, B, & C ACCIDENTS*
FY
C/MH-
47D/E
Mishaps
All USA Helo Mishaps
H-47 % of All Mishaps
2005
15
107
14%
2004
15
108
14%
2003
15
125
12%
2002
21
124
17%
Total
66
464
14%
U.S. ARMY C/MH-47D/E DATA*
As of
Inventory
of C/MH-
47D/E
All USA Helo
H-47 % of All USA Helo
2005
453
3786
12%
U.S. ARMY HELOs & C/MH-47D/E in Operation Iraqi Freedom**
Period
Inventory
of C/MH-
47 D/E
All USA Helo
H-47 % of All USA Helo
Feb 2003 -
June 2005
44
466
9%
U.S. ARMY HELOs in Operation Iraqi Freedom C/MH-47D/E DATA**
Period
Flight Hours
C/MH-47D
Flight Hours All USA Helo
H-47 % of All USA Helo
Feb 2003 -
June 2005
37522
537377
7%

*U.S. Army Safety Center Accident Data FY2002 - FY2005
**BGEN Sinclair APBI Briefing
Source: U.S. Army; chart prepared by Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, March 7, 2007, Volume 221, Issue 44.
Note: C/MH-47D/E refers to diferrent models of the Chinook airframe.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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