Boeing to Modernize Spanish Chinook Fleet with Autonomous-Ready Avionics and Flight Control Systems

The Boeing Company  will upgrade all 17 of Spain’s Boeing CH-47D Chinook heavy lift helicopters to the F-model configuration, adding features such as a fully integrated common avionics architecture system cockpit and digital automatic flight control system to reduce pilot workload, provide greater situational awareness, and align the country’s fleet with those of other nations.

The digital automatic flight control system can be programmed for autonomous operations such as flight stabilization and unmanned flight to set checkpoints; however, Chicago-based Boeing is currently working with the Canadian military to increase the Chinook’s autonomous capabilities.

Spain’s order marks the first order from an international customer placed through a contract signed by Boeing and the U.S. Army  in July. The contract covers six new F-models for the U.S. and options for up to 150 more Chinooks for U.S. and international customers. Deliveries to Spain begin in 2021.

An aerial delivery field service department instructor and A U.S. Air Force senior airman turn away from the rotor wash as a Nevada National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off with a Humvee at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during sling-load training on April 15, 2011. (Image source: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

“The Chinook is a versatile aircraft flown by eight NATO  nations, including Spain,” says Chuck Dabundo, vice president, Cargo and Utility Helicopters and H-47 program manager at Boeing. “With this contract, Spain’s Chinook crews will enjoy the platform’s current technology and capability, while the country gets an affordable upgrade that builds on its existing H-47 investment.”

The Chinook is a twin-engine, tandem rotor helicopter. In addition to the U.S. Army and Special Operations Forces, the latest CH-47F Chinooks are currently in service or under contract with 19 international defense forces. It can fly at speeds exceeding 175 miles per hour and carry payloads greater than 21,000 pounds.

The CH-47F Chinook features a modernized airframe, new rotor blade, improved drivetrain, and a long-range fuel system which allows it to fly twice as far as standard range models. It also has a new advanced cargo handling system.

The ongoing U.S.-Canadian efforts to develop a fully autonomous Chinook include developing and incorporating new sensors for improving flight in degraded visual environments and avoiding terrain and wire strikes. The program will culminate with autonomous demonstrations in Canada in 2021 and 2022.

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Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences , based out of Manassas, Virginia, has previously developed autonomous capabilities for the Bell UH-1H utility helicopter under the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program.

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Although the U.S. Army’s recent Future Vertical Lift  (FVL) program seeks to replace its aging Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and OH-58 Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopters, the Chinook – introduced in 1962 – will likely fly well into the 2050s.

William Kucinski  is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.