Viper Attack Helicopters Give Marines New Weapon for Pacific Arsenal

An AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter lifts off at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Feb. 3, 2017. (MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES)
An AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter lifts off at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Feb. 3, 2017. (MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES)

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Okinawa -- The next time Marines hit a Pacific beach, they will have the most advanced attack helicopter in the world at their backs.

Eight AH-1Z Vipers began arriving at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in late November to permanently replace the service's aging fleet of AH-1W Super Cobras, Marine officials said, and more are on the way.

Though they have made sporadic appearances in the region over the past few years, this is the Vipers' first permanent deployment to the Pacific.

The Viper is faster, more powerful and more survivable than its predecessor, said Marine Corps pilots who spoke with Stars and Stripes.

It can also carry more fuel, more weapons and ammunition, and can identify and engage targets from farther away.

According to manufacturer Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., it is the only attack helicopter in the world with a fully integrated air-to-air missile capability.

Most of the Super Cobras have left Okinawa, Marine officials said. The transition will be completed around May.

"When it comes to the switch from the Whiskey [the Super Cobra] to the Z, I tell people all the time, it's like cheating," said Lt. Col. John Livingston, commanding officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267. "This aircraft is so much more capable."

Typical Viper roles include escort duty during reconnaissance missions, or destruction of enemy tanks and armored personnel carriers. They also have specific weapons for enemy personnel.

The helicopter is integral to the Marine Corps' focus on amphibious operations and flexibility in different environments, Marine officials said.

The Viper is coated to fight corrosion and operates with two engines for over-water flight. The Marine Corps uses Vipers primarily for close-air support, including in seaborne assaults; the Army uses their attack helicopters more as a separate maneuver element, like a tank, and generally from land.

Safety first

Part of what makes the Viper impressive is its ability to identify potential safety problems before they become serious, Marine Viper pilots said.

The Viper in its short history boasts no Class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours -- a category used by the military to identify accidents involving fatalities, serious injuries and property damage.

Its record stands out, as Marine Corps aviation has come under scrutiny in recent years amid concerns over readiness and training time.

From October through February, the Marine Corps' total aviation Class A mishap rate is about eight per 100,000 flight hours.

An AH-1Z made a precautionary landing on Ikei Island in Okinawa on Jan. 20, which spooked crash-weary residents, but the landing showed how well the helicopter works, pilots said. Viper pilots can run diagnostics while flying the new platform.

During that incident, a warning indication in the cockpit told them to find a safe place and land right away, so they did.

The helicopters are computerized, whereas the Super Cobras were not. Crewmembers can download flight data, which is passed to maintenance teams who can identify irregularities.

The data is also uploaded to a centralized database and comparisons are made across the fleet.

"Traditionally, in our community, you didn't know something was going wrong until something actually went wrong," said the squadron's aircraft maintenance officer, Maj. Robert Bunn, who has been involved with the Viper since testing. "Now, we've got digital analysis that will show stuff that is happening that I wouldn't be able to tell as a pilot."

Decision time

Bunn and his fellow pilots said the biggest advantage is the Viper's improved sensor, called the Target Sight System. In the past, Marine attack-helicopter sensors would not identify a target until the aircraft was almost right on top of it, giving pilots mere seconds to make a decision on what to do. Now, Livingston says, pilots have "multiple minutes."

"It has us doing our jobs a little bit better," said Maj. Daniel Hipol, squadron director of safety and standardization. "We can find targets easier and keep more standoff (distance) from them, so all around, it's a better aircraft."

The Viper can carry more fuel than the Super Cobra so it can stay airborne for at least 30 more minutes, perhaps even up to an hour when supplementary fuel tanks are added, Bunn said. The Super Cobra could carry only eight Hellfire missiles, and that was a stretch. The Viper can carry 16.

"We start running into, ‘Hey, do we have enough targets for all of this ordnance?'" Bunn said.

The AH-1Z also has upgraded landing gear, four-bladed composite rotor system and four-bladed tail rotor, instead of the two that the Super Cobra had.

The swap is part of the Marine Corps' H-1 replacement program, designed to modernize utility and attack aircraft, Marine officials said in a statement. As part of that program, the UH-1Y Venom is replacing the UH-1N Twin Huey. Marine Aircraft Group 36 already has UH-1Ys stationed at Futenma.

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