By Ann Roosevelt

The first of four deployed CH-47F Chinook helicopter units is back from theater, and has proven its new capabilities, officials said.

Soldiers say, "the new features saved lives," and "we need more, now," said Col. Newman Shufflebarger, Cargo Helicopter Office project manager.

Boeing [BA] produces the Chinook, with F-model units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A good example of that, Shufflebarger said, was when a 47F had to carefully maneuver between two power lines to pick up a downed UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.

The Chinook crew used its Rockwell Collins [COL] Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) cockpit and the BAE Systems’ Digital Advanced Flight Control System (DAFCS) to precisely maneuver the aircraft in one-foot increments and, using autopilot, the helicopter could deploy its cargo hook to pick up the Black Hawk.

The twin rotor multi-role transport helicopter is working on its 50th year, Jack Dougherty, vice president of H-47 programs for Boeing, said during a roundtable at the Association of the United States Army earlier this month. The first contract came in 1959, with the first Chinook delivered in 1962.

The first F-model was produced in 2006.

The now combat-proven F model has been fielded to four units that are recording operational readiness rates above 85 percent, Dougherty said. A fifth unit will be fielded this month.

The Army-Boeing team has, within three years, gotten five operational combat units, he said.

"One unit has flown in excess of 90 hours per month," Shufflebarger said. The deployed units have a high operational tempo as well as high readiness rates.

There are "no cracks or problems" with the new aircraft, "a good indication from the operational standpoint and safety environment," he said.

So far, there is no accident rate, he said. One aircraft was shot down, but the crew survived.

"We’ve heard nothing but good things" about the aircraft, Shufflebarger said. "All I get from my higher [command] is build more, build them faster."

The Army requirement is for a total of 452 Chinook F models, Dougherty said, "In terms of our capacity, we’re building Chinooks just about as fast as we can."

Right now, Boeing is building three aircraft a month. It will rise to four to five a month a month and stay there.

The entire CH-47F production facility in Ridley Park, Pa., will be recapitalized, Dougherty said, by the summer of 2011. The basic F-model production line faces north and consists of nine positions. The new production line will face south and have 12 positions when the work is done. This will take the capacity up to six aircraft a month.