Air Transportation: Desert Treasure In Libya

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December 1, 2016: Although the Libyan armed forces have been torn apart and much reduced by the 2011 revolution and five years of civil war many aircraft of the Libyan Air Force have survived. For example two Libyan CH-47C transport helicopters are being put back into service. Libya had originally bought 20 license built CH-47Cs from Italy in the late 1970s and these became very popular, heavily used and well maintained aircraft with the Libyans. By 2011 only twelve were left, with only one of them operational. But now the new government (there are two governments and fighting continues) has gathered the resources to refurbish two of the CH-47Cs and put them back into service, just in time for these two aircraft to achieve 40 years of service.

This sort of thing is not unusual for the CH-47, a 1960s design that is still popular and operating in large numbers worldwide. For example the U.S. Army is in the midst of spending over $11 billion dollars to refurbish its fleet of existing CH-47Ds to the F standard. The CH-47 has proved to be a very successful design and since the 1980s none of the proposed replacements were dramatically better than an upgraded CH-47. This American upgrade effort will result in a fleet of 513 CH-47F helicopters (including 397 rebuilt CH-47D choppers, 55 new build 47Fs ones, plus some special versions like the MH-47G).

The rebuilt CH-47Ds became CH-47Fs that are good for another twenty years of service. The F model CH-47 has up-to-date digital communications, is easier to maintain, and cheaper to operate. The CH-47F can carry ten tons of cargo, up to 55 troops and has a maximum range of 426 kilometers. Its max speed is 315 kilometers an hour. Typical missions last no more than 2.5 hours. If the Libyan CH-47Cs survive the civil war, economical upgrades to D or F standards are available and quite popular.

In 2010 the CH-47F helicopter got its first sustained experience in a combat zone and performed well. This was a major factor in the U.S. Army getting the money to buy more of them. A company of 20 CH-47Fs arrived in Afghanistan during 2009, and soon found themselves often flying eight missions a day, day after day. The CH-47Fs had a 90 percent availability rate. Although the CH-47F has been flying since 2001, and were first delivered to the army in 2009, it takes sustained use in a combat environment to smoke out the last bugs and maintenance problems. In Afghanistan there were some problems with the flat panel displays, which were quickly worked out. There were several other minor problems, mostly having to do with all the dust in the environment and the temperature extremes (often below freezing in Winter and over 45 degrees/113 Fahrenheit in Summer). This was tough on the maintainers and manufacturers' reps initially, but after a year maintenance problems were no longer an issue. This is important because in Afghanistan the CH-47 is a critical form of air transportation, including combat assault.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Army had used UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters for combat assault missions, while the larger CH-47 "Chinook" was used just for moving cargo. But the army found that, in the high altitudes of Afghanistan, the more powerful CH-47 was often the only way to go in the thin mountain air. While doing that the army found that the CH-47 made an excellent assault helicopter. In many ways it was superior to the UH-60, mainly because the CH-47 carries more troops and moves faster and farther. The CH-47F has even more powerful engines and is even more valuable for high altitude assaults. It is the best helicopter for use in Afghanistan, having proved able to deal with the dust and high altitude operations better than other transport choppers.

The first CH-47s entered service in 1962, able to carry only five tons. Some 750 saw service in Vietnam and 200 were lost in action. During 1982-94, 500 CH-47s were rebuilt to the CH-47D standard. SOCOM operates 31 MH-47Ds and Es, which have additional navigation gear. These are being upgraded to MH-47F standards and the fleet expanded to 61 helicopters. As a result of all this, the CH-47 will end up serving at least 75 years. The original CH-47F upgrade program and new builds will not be completed until 2018 and subsequent upgrade contracts will extend production into the 2020s.

 


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