The Bell AH-1Z Viper is an American twin-engine attack helicopter, based on the AH-1W SuperCobra, that was developed for the United States Marine Corps as part of the H-1 upgrade program. The AH-1Z features a four-blade, bearingless, composite main rotor system, uprated transmission, and a new target sighting system. The AH-1Z, one of the latest members of the prolific Bell Huey family, is also called “Zulu Cobra”, based on the military phonetic alphabet pronunciation of its variant letter.
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||8 December 2000|
|Introduction||30 September 2010|
|Primary user||United States Marine Corps|
|Developed from||Bell AH-1 SuperCobra|
Aspects of the AH-1Z date back to the Bell 249 in 1979, which was basically an AH-1S equipped with the four-blade main rotor system from the Bell 412. This helicopter demonstrated Bell’s Cobra II design at the Farnborough Airshow in 1980. The Cobra II was to be equipped with Hellfire missiles, a new targeting system, and improved engines. The Cobra 2000 proposal included General Electric T700 engines and a four-blade rotor. This design drew interest from the US Marine Corps, but funding was not available. In 1993, Bell proposed an AH-1W-based version for the UK’s new attack helicopter program. The derivative CobraVenom featured a modern digital cockpit and could carry wire-guided missiles, Hellfire or Brimstone missiles. The CobraVenom design was altered in 1995 by changing to a four-blade rotor system. However, the AH-64D was selected instead later that year.
H-1 upgrade program
In 1996, the USMC launched the H-1 upgrade program by signing a contract with Bell Helicopter for upgrading 180 AH-1Ws into AH-1Zs and upgrading 100 UH-1Ns into UH-1Ys. The H-1 program created completely modernized attack and utility helicopters with considerable design commonality to reduce operating costs. The AH-1Z and UH-1Y share a common tailboom, engines, rotor system, drivetrain, avionics architecture, software, controls and displays for over 84% identical components.
Bell participated in a joint government test team during the engineering manufacturing and development phase of the H-1 program. Research and development progressed slowly from 1996 to 2003. The existing two-blade semi-rigid, teetering rotor system was replaced with a four-blade, hingeless, bearingless rotor system. The four-blade configuration provides improvements in flight characteristics including increased flight envelope, maximum speed, vertical rate of climb, payload and reduced rotor vibration level.
The AH-1Z first flew on 8 December 2000. Bell delivered three prototype aircraft to the United States Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in July 2002, for the flight test phase of the program. Low-rate initial production began in October 2003, with deliveries running through 2018. In late 2006 a contract was awarded to Meggitt Defense Systems to develop a new linkless 20 mm ammunition handling system to improve on the gun feed reliability of the existing linked feed system.
In February 2008, the U.S. Navy adjusted the contract so the last 40 AH-1Zs were built as new airframes instead of the previously planned rebuild of AH-1Ws. In September 2008, the Navy requested an additional 46 airframes for the Marine Corps, bringing the total number ordered to 226. In 2010, the Marine Corps ordered 189 AH-1Zs, with 58 of them being new airframes, with deliveries to continue until 2022. On 10 December 2010, the Department of the Navy approved the AH-1Z for full-rate production.
The AH-1Z incorporates new rotor technology with upgraded military avionics, weapons systems, and electro-optical sensors in an integrated weapons platform. It has improved survivability and can find targets at longer ranges and attack them with precision weapons.
The AH-1Z’s bearingless, hingeless rotor system has 75% fewer parts than that of four-bladed articulated systems. The blades are made of composites, which have increased ballistic survivability, and there is a semiautomatic folding system for storage aboard amphibious assault ships. Its two redesigned wing stubs are longer, with each adding a wingtip station for a missile such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder. Each wing has two other stations for 2.75-inch (70 mm) Hydra 70 rocket pods, or AGM-114 Hellfire quad missile launchers. The AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar can also be mounted on a wingtip station.
The Z-model’s integrated avionics system has been developed by Northrop Grumman. The system includes two mission computers and an automatic flight control system. Each crew station has two 8×6-inch multifunction liquid crystal displays (LCD) and one 4.2×4.2-inch dual function LCD. The communications suite combines a U.S. Navy RT-1824 integrated radio, UHF/VHF, COMSEC, and modem in a single unit. The navigation suite includes an embedded GPS inertial navigation system, a digital map system, and Meggitt’s low-airspeed air data subsystem, which allows weapons delivery when hovering.
Crewmembers are equipped with the Thales “Top Owl” helmet-mounted sight and display system. The Top Owl has a 24-hour day/night capability and a binocular display with a 40° field of view. Its visor projection provides forward looking infrared (FLIR) or video imagery. The AH-1Z has survivability equipment including the Hover Infrared Suppression System (HIRSS) to cover engine exhausts, countermeasure dispensers, radar warning, incoming/on-way missile warning, and on-fuselage laser spot warning systems. The Lockheed Martin target sight system (TSS) incorporates a third-generation FLIR sensor. The TSS provides target sighting in day, night, or adverse weather conditions. The system has various view modes and can track with FLIR or by TV. The same system is also used on the KC-130J Harvest HAWK.
The AH-1Z completed sea-trial flight testing in May 2005. On 15 October 2005, the USMC, through the Naval Air Systems Command, accepted delivery of the first AH-1Z production helicopter to enter the fleet. The AH-1Z and UH-1Y completed their developmental testing in early 2006. During the first quarter of 2006 the aircraft were transferred to the Operational Test Unit at the NAS Patuxent River, where they began operational evaluation (OPEVAL) testing. In February 2008, the AH-1Z and UH-1Y began the second and final portion of OPEVAL testing. The AH-1Z was later declared combat-ready on 30 September 2010.
In April 2015, the U.S. State Department approved a possible Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Pakistan for 15 AH-1Z Vipers with Hellfire missiles, associated equipment and support worth up to $952 million. Pakistan was to receive 9 AH-1Z helicopters by September 2018. As of July 2018, Pakistan’s order has been placed on hold, due to political tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. Of the order of 12 aircraft, nine have been built but are stored at the 309th AMARG base in Arizona, awaiting a solution to the friction between the two countries.
In 2016, Bell was also interested in selling the AH-1Z to Poland and Czech Republic, which are going to retire their Mil Mi-24s. In December 2019, the Czech Republic finalized the sale with the U.S. of four AH-1Z helicopters for the Czech Air Force. It was reported that the Royal Moroccan Air Force was interested in procuring the AH-1Z helicopters in 2016. In November 2016, Bell Helicopter signed a memorandum of understanding with Romanian airspace company IAR – Ghimbav Brasov Group for potential collaboration on the AH-1Z Viper. In August 2017, Romania also signed a letter of intent with Bell Helicopter to establish a joint venture with Romanian state-owned ROMARM for the potential procurement of a number of AH-1Zs.
In July 2017, Bell Helicopter and Polish Armaments Group signed a letter of intent planning on cooperating on the UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters, forming a potential bid for the Polish Kruk attack helicopter acquisition program, part of a wider modernization effort. In October 2017, Thailand’s Minister of Defence Prawit Wongsuwan stated that Thailand is looking onto replacing its fleet of aging AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters and will launch a procurement committee to look into the matter. Royal Thai Army officials have said that the Army is looking into the Bell AH-1Z Viper, as well as the Agusta A129 Mangusta, Mil Mi-28, CAIC Z-10, Bell AH-1 SuperCobra, and Boeing AH-64 Apache.
On 27 April 2018, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced it had received U.S. State Department approval and notified Congress of a possible sale to Bahrain of 12 AH-1Zs, 26 T-700 GE 401C engines, and armaments for an estimated cost of US$911.4 million. In November 2018, Bahrain confirmed the order for 12 AH-1Zs with deliveries to begin in 2022. On 30 April 2020, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced it had received U.S. State Department approval and notified Congress of a possible sale to the Philippines of either six AH-1Z attack helicopters and related equipment for an estimated cost of $450 million or six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and related equipment for an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.
- Royal Bahraini Air Force (12 on order)
- Czech Republic
- Czech Air Force (4 on order)
- United States
- United States Marine Corps
Data from Bell Specifications, The International Directory of Military Aircraft, 2002–2003, Modern Battlefield Warplanes
- Crew: 2: pilot, co-pilot/gunner (CPG)
- Length: 58 ft 3 in (17.75 m)
- Height: 14 ft 4 in (4.37 m)
- Empty weight: 12,300 lb (5,579 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 18,500 lb (8,391 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × General Electric T700-GE-401C turboshaft, 1,800 shp (1,300 kW) each
- Main rotor diameter: 48 ft (15 m)
- Main rotor area: 1,808 sq ft (168.0 m2) 4-bladed main and tail rotors
- Cruise speed: 160 kn (180 mph, 300 km/h)
- Never exceed speed: 222 kn (255 mph, 411 km/h)
- Range: 370 nmi (430 mi, 690 km)
- Combat range: 125 nmi (144 mi, 232 km) with 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) payload
- Service ceiling: 20,000 ft (6,100 m) +
- Rate of climb: 2,790 ft/min (14.2 m/s)
- 1 × 20 mm (0.787 in) M197 three-barreled rotary cannon in the A/A49E-7 turret (750 round ammo capacity)
- Up to 6 pylon stations on stub wings with a capacity of
- 5,764 lb (2,615 kg) maximum,
- 2.75 in (70 mm) Hydra 70 or APKWS II rockets – Mounted in LAU-68C/A (7 shot) or LAU-61D/A (19 shot) launchers (up to 76 unguided or 28 guided rockets total)
- AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles – 1 mounted on each wing tip station (total of 2)
- AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles – Up to 16 missiles mounted in four 4-round M299 missile launchers, two on each wing
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