Warplanes: Cleaning Up The Cockpit


October 20, 2007: The U.S. Army is installing much improved cockpit electronics systems into all its helicopters, and it's all because the Special Forces are free to try anything with the few special operations helicopters they have. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has long possessed the power to get whatever equipment, weapons or technical services they need, without having to go through the lengthily procurement process. This is tolerated because SOCOM is expected to take care of unusual situations, quickly and without failure. As far back as World War II, it was realized that your commandos can only do this if you let them get what they think they need, quickly and without any red tape.

Using this power, SOCOM developed CAAS (Common Avionics Architecture System) for their special versions of the OH-6 (AH-6), UH-60 (the MH-60) and CH-47 (MH-47) helicopters. CAAS uses high resolution flat displays, and easily upgradeable microcomputers and software to make the pilots job much easier. But CAAS also makes it a lot easier to quickly upgrade the cockpit electronics.

The number of 6x8 inch color displays (run by a commercial grade video card) varies from two to six, depending on the size of the cockpit (the smaller helicopters, like the AH-6, have less cockpit space). CAAS allows for the use of commercial PC cards, usually for communications and graphics functions. Thus, as new capabilities become available in the PC world, CAAS equipped helicopters can easily install them was well.

In the past, cockpit avionics were custom built, often using components specially made for a particular aircraft. As time went by, this made it difficult to get spare parts, or upgrade the hardware. Since the software was tied to the hardware, and this software was only used in a particular aircraft type, it was expensive to upgrade. But CAAS is being installed in thousands of army helicopters, and the cost savings in terms of hardware (upgrades and spares) and software will be enormous. Plus, the aircraft will be upgraded more quickly and frequently.

SOCOM helicopters got CAAS four years ago, and after a hundred or so were so upgraded, it was obvious that this was a very successful item. So the army decided to install CAAS in all their helicopters.


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