By Ann Roosevelt

The Army and Boeing [BA] are preparing for the first flight of an AH-64D Apache Block III prototype helicopter next year, officials said.

"Our first prototype flight test is in July of next year; it will be an avionics aircraft, Al Winn, Boeing vice president, Apache programs, said at a recent conference. "We’ve already started modifying the aircraft…and it’s ahead of schedule."

The preliminary design review was completed in April, Winn said. "That’s an important event because that establishes the configuration capabilities that will be put into the airplane for that future test and now we’re moving forward on ensuring those capabilities will be there on time."

A limited user test is scheduled for November ’09.

The Block III program is moving well, Winn said. "We’re on schedule and below cost."

Col. Derek Paquette, Army Apache project manager, said of the Block III program: "It’s considered a model development program by [Office of the Secretary of Defence] OSD. The program is going extremely well, remains on cost, on schedule, [and a] very good performance by Boeing.

The first Block III helicopters will come out in the June 2011 time period, Paquette said.

Col. Mark Hayes, Army Tradoc Capabilities Manager, representing the user, said the Apache Block III will be around until about 2040. "Over time we will withdraw or retire the A model. Then the Army will have the Longbow and all the Longbows will go to the Block III configuration."

The Apache program was detailed at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in October.

Certain Block III capabilities are being incorporated into other Army demonstrations, Winn said. Early in 2007, Apache for the first time, was part of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) Experiment 1.1. A Block II Apache with the Block III mission processor with the FCS system of systems common operating environment operating on it, demonstrated the ability to connect with FCS ground systems.

"That demo went very well," Winn said. The program will continue working with the FCS program.

Recently at Ft. Dix, N.J., the program concluded another successful demonstration, a command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR)-on-the-move effort that worked with the Soldier Radio Waveform, Future Force Warrior and other technologies.

"We were able to show direct connectivity from the soldier on the ground to the Apache," Winn said. The program is also working toward the April JFX ’08, multi force demonstration that will showcase FCS and Block III technologies.

Meanwhile, Paquette said the Apache continues to do extremely well in combat. "It’s extremely feared by our enemies."

"On any given day we have about 120 aircraft deployed," Paquette said. "The majority of aircraft are in Iraq, we also keep a battalion in Afghanistan."

Hayes said there is "no doubt the aircraft is still flying three times the optempo of our peacetime rate. Our operational readiness rate still exceeds 85 percent. Considering that optempo, it’s amazing."

The Army continues to work with Boeing to increase the helicopter’s lethality and performance.

The Army and Boeing signed an extended an Extended Block II contract to remanufacture an additional 96 AH-64A aircraft to current Block II configuration.

"In our funding we have identified 24 more, so there is a total of 120 remanufactured aircraft," Paquette said.

There are also new build Block II–war replacement aircraft in the works. A total of 47 are on contract today, he said. "We have accepted the first deliveries of the Longbows, war replacement aircraft to date we have accepted 13."

In September, the Army accepted the first remanufactured Lot 11 configured aircraft.

"I’ll add to that–we delivered it one month early," Al Winn said

All these aircraft are going to units that are going straight into the fight, Paquette said. "We’re getting the best capability that we can into the hands of the warfighter and they’re deploying as rapidly as they can."

Additionally, on Sept. 26. Boeing announced it signed a $173 million base-year with two one-year options Performance-Based Logistics contract with the Army for AH-64D Apache components.

"Boeing’s on the hook to deliver within so many hours depending on location," Paquette said. "That’s for Longbow unique parts. Over time that will grow to expand to include the entire airframe."

Hayes said: "The PBL contract will help the warfighter, maintainer to realize a more capable logistics system to keep that optempo where it needs to be, because the warfight isn’t going to ask for a slower optempo. If anything, we’d rather to speed it up."

The Apache program continues to move forward to improve lethality, performance and survivability as the Army wants.

"The capabilities that we realize today are what we ask for, and what we see in the near and long term future for the Apache are right in line with how we intend to fund this aircraft for future and current operations," Hayes said.