The Coast Guard is set to start full-rate production of an overhaul program to extend the life of its Airbus H-65 Dolphins by 10,000 flight hours and at the same time upgrading the avionics on the short-range recovery helicopters.

Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) work was done at the same time and on the same production line as the avionics upgrades for the first H-65 and finished on Dec. 18

The Coast Guard completed Service Life Extension Program activities and an avionics upgrade on an H-65 short range recovery helicopter as part of a joint production line Dec. 18, 2018. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

During low rate initial production (LRIP) the service reviewed and validated improvements required after the initial work on the prototype and validation/verification aircraft.

Coast Guard teams discovered that the wire analysis system was not completely ready for full production. “On-the-spot corrections were made to remedy the problem and rolled into the production process for future aircraft,” the service said in a statement Feb. 14.

Avionics upgrades include reliability and capability improvements for the Automatic Flight Control System; installation of a digital cockpit display system and an upgraded digital weather/surface search radar; integration of a robust Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) suite and modernization of the digital flight deck with Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), common with the Coast Guard H-60 medium range recovery helicopter and similar Department of Defense aircraft.

At the same time, the Coast Guard is completing SLEP activities to replace five major structural components — the nine-degree frame, canopy, center console floor assembly, floorboards and side panels. These mission-critical improvements are designed to extend the service life of the helicopter by 10,000 flight hours.

The avionics upgrades and SLEP are being completed at the same time to achieve schedule and cost efficiencies, according to the Coast Guard.

The service will also sequence the installation of new upgrade components after SLEP and programmed depot maintenance is complete, avoiding unnecessary rework that would be required if the efforts were conducted separately.

Once the upgrades are complete, the helicopter is redesignated an MH-65E.

Initial operational test and evaluation of the newly named E-model Dolphins began Jan. 7. Two of the three aircraft that been converted to MH-65Es are undergoing airworthiness testing to make sure the new configuration meets the Coast Guard’s operational requirements.

Twenty-one ground events and 56 flights have been planned for the test campaign. There will be three test periods and one make-up test period that take place in a three-month window, according to the Coast Guard.

A final test report of data collected from both the operational assessment and initial testing will be used to support a decision for the program to move into full rate production. The program anticipates an ADE-3 decision in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020.

Projected completion of the MH-65E conversion for all 98 aircraft is fiscal year 2024.