How will the US Air Force replace the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter?

It may be tough for civilians to feel the same nostalgia a veteran might feel to see the venerable UH-1 Huey helicopter go.

That is until they find out it’s been the helicopter on screens small and large for the better part of a century.

Non-vets watched the workhorse Huey pick up the dead and dying in news broadcasts and on the silver screen, dropping men and material into Vietnam (among other places).

UH-1_Huey

Retiring the UH-1 Huey

If you haven’t heard, the U.S. military is set to retire the iconic UH-1 Huey Helicopter in 2017.

The aircraft was first developed in 1956 and was the first helicopter powered by a jet engine. Its distinctive chomping sound is caused by its powerful rotor blades approaching the speed of sound. It’s been used for search and rescue, rearmament, overwatch for moving nuclear missiles and more.

You name it. The Huey probably supported it. They didn’t name it “Utility Helicopter” for nothing.

But it has been in service since the 1970s and times have changed, but the U.S. military still needs its all-purpose workhorse to replace the UH-1 Huey’s multifaceted role.

Filling the gap

Early in 2016, lawmakers wanted to replace the Hueys with UH-60M Black Hawks — especially those congressional leaders representing states that house intercontinental ballistic missile systems, like Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and retired Navy SEAL.

“If there are helicopters that are readily available and will save the taxpayer money, we need to get them in the field now,” Zinke said in a statement. “I know the Black Hawk well from my time in the SEALs. It is fully capable and stands ready to fill the need before us. This is not a mission that can fail. Our nuclear triad is at stake.”

A 459th Airlift Squadron UH-1N Huey prepares for flight at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Feb. 23, 2016. The 459th AS recently improved their search and rescue capabilities by outfitting two UH-1N Hueys with new rescue hoists. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Delano Scott/Released)

A 459th Airlift Squadron UH-1N Huey prepares for flight at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Feb. 23, 2016. The 459th AS recently improved their search and rescue capabilities by outfitting two UH-1N Hueys with new rescue hoists. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Delano Scott)

Designing a UH-1 Huey replacement

In May 2016, the Air Force announced an open competition to replace the aging airframe. The budget for the 2017 fiscal year includes a request for $32.4 million to produce a Huey replacement and $25 million to manage the aging Huey fleet until a replacement can enter service.

The Marine Corps retired its UH-1N fleet in 2014. Initially, they intended to simply upgrade the fleet of UH-1N to UH-1Y. Instead, they opted to produce UH-1Ys as a whole new helicopter. The Marines have no plans to replace it.

A UH-1Y Huey with Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39 conducts close-air support during a MAGTF Integration Exercise in El Centro, Calif., April 28. As part of Marine Aircraft Group 39’s new integration effort, they conduct integration exercises quarterly that closely integrate ground and air assets allowing for a greater degree of symbiotic training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alissa P. Schuning/Released)

A UH-1Y Huey with Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39 conducts close-air support during an MAGTF Integration Exercise in El Centro, Calif. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alissa P. Schuning)

The Army replaced its Huey fleet with the UH-72A Lakota. The Lakota is quieter, smaller and more maneuverable than the Huey, and costs roughly $4.5 million. The Army currently has 200 of the European-made, U.S.-assembled Lakotas worldwide.

A UH-72 Lakota Helicopter of the National Training Center’s Aviation Company provides air superiority cover for the opposition forces engaged with 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division’s ground forces during an encounter in the Siberian Flats at the National Training Center, June 15, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Austin Anyzeski, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment)

A UH-72 Lakota Helicopter of the National Training Center’s Aviation Company provides air superiority cover for the opposition forces engaged with 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division’s ground forces during an encounter in the Siberian Flats at the National Training Center, June 15, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Austin Anyzeski)

The Air Force is the only branch whose quest to replace the UH-1 Huey started a fight. The service originally planned to replace it with the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, but that was axed in 2013 due to budget caps.

Next, the Air Force tried to give Sikorsky, the company that makes UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, a sole-source contract to produce a replacement. That idea was met with criticism because the Black Hawk is bigger and costs more. The National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste sent letters to the House and Senate Armed Services committees in opposition to the sole-source move. That’s when the HASC set aside the funds for a replacement.

“This is an urgent need,” HASC Chair Rep. Mac Thornberry told the Washington Post. “These helicopters are around 40 years old, and I’m not very pleased it has [been] allowed to get to this situation.”

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