UH-60A helicopter upgraded by Sierra Nevada Corp.
UH-60A helicopter upgraded by Sierra Nevada Corp. (Dan Parsons)

ATLANTA — Sierra Nevada Corp. is taking the Army’s old UH-60As, some with more than 16,000 flight hours on them, and installing upgrades that bring the old birds nearly to the capability level of a new-build M-model Black Hawk.

SNC has partnered with Genesys Aerosystems and XP Services to offer retrofitted UH-60As with a fully digital, glass cockpit and three-axis autopilot. As the U.S. Army’s fleet ages and partner/ally militaries also put wear and tear on their UH-60s, there is increasing need to bring the aircraft systems, which have been flying for 40 years, into the modern world.

SNC buys the old Black Hawks from the Army through the Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) Program. The one on display at the Helicopter Association International’s HeliExpo conference was one of the most-flown UH-60s in the Army’s inventory with more than 16,500 hours, according to Brian Shifflett, SNC’s Sierra Force program manager.

“We now have a working three-axis autopilot and are in the process of doing the engineering for the fourth access and we’ll be in development for a little over a year,” Shifflett said. “We’ve gotten rid of all the legacy stuff that comes with a Black Hawk, fiber optic gyros, the old caution advisory panels — stuff that even the Army is having a hard time supporting — we’ve ripped all that out and put Genesys in there. We can now support this aircraft, from an avionics standpoint, for at least 15 to 20 years.”

The U.S. Army is currently in the process of divesting its old A-model Black Hawks while buying new UH-60M “Mike” models. Those aircraft are extremely capable and modern, but are prohibitively expensive for many of the other countries that fly the H-60.

At least 271 H-60 Black Hawk helicopters have been divested since the BEST program began in 2014, resulting in $230 million in revenue, through reimbursement or credited to the H-60M multi-year contracts, and a $68 million divestment cost avoidance.

Genesys Aerosystems cocpkit in a UH-60A helicopter upgraded by Sierra Nevada Corp.
Genesys Aerosystems cocpkit in a UH-60A helicopter upgraded by Sierra Nevada Corp. (Dan Parsons)

Sikorsky, now owned by Lockheed Martin [LMT], has discontinued production of the H-60A and L models, but those variants are in wide use by U.S. civilian contractors, federal/state agencies and international customers.

“This is a very low cost solution,” Shifflett said, although SNC is not divulging how much the retrofits cost. “It’s still a UH-60A at the end of the day and we will have a [supplemental type certificate] at the end of the year that allows us to put this cockpit and autopilot in.”

Downtime for a baseline UH-60A cockpit upgrade is around three months, he said. SNC is working on how and whether the aircraft need to be ferried to its facilities or if the work can be done by operators trained by SNC.

SNC also has an agreement with Corpus Christ Army Depot in Texas so that it can convert any UH-60A to an L-model, which includes engine and transmission upgrades on top of the cockpit avionics overhaul. That gives customers a wide menu of options for enhancing their Black Hawk Fleets, he said. UH-60Ls also undergo a full service-life extension program (SLEP).

“It’s customizable because it’s open architecture,” Shifflett said. “It allows the customer to make changes to the displays and add stuff. … Next step after the STC at the end of the year is to continue with the fourth axis, which gives us collective control. Right now our three-axis gives us pitch, trim and yaw.”

The autopilot works above 60 knots and can allow the pilot to fly hands off except for the collective, which controls engine power and thereby vertical lift. The goal is to ultimately get to a 10-foot hover to the ground under autopilot control, which will put the refurbished A-model basically on par with a new-build UH-60M.

“At that point, we are 100 percent fully coupled and equivalent … at a lower cost,” he said.

The market for the Sierra Force is mainly foreign militaries. SNC lost a bid to do a very similar Black Hawk upgrade for the Air Force to replace its aging fleet of UH-1 Hueys, but that offering was with a different cockpit. Still, the U.S. Defense and State departments are target buyers, he said. SNC won’t talk launch customers, but South America, Africa and the Middle East countries are all targets for the upgrades, Shifflett said.

“We are targeting the foreign military customer base, the international customer base,” he said. Countries that are “looking to bring Black Hawks into the fleet, or fly Black Hawks and want this solution. … We can provide them the aircraft and the upgrade and then it depends, do they want A-models, do they want A+s, which is engines and transmissions, or do they want the full L, and we can do that, too.”

This story has been updated to correct the name of the updated UH-60A. The upgrade package is called Sierra Force.