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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Upgrades to the Army’s CH-47 Chinook will give crews the capability to reconfigure the helicopter in flight to haul cargo or passengers, saving critical turnover time for one of the service’s longtime workhorses.

Each aircraft in the Army fleet of more than 400 twin-rotor Chinooks can haul 13 tons of cargo or up to 32 passengers.

“There is no other helicopter in the Army inventory that can carry anywhere near that weight,” said Lt. Col. Joe Hoecherl, product manager for CH-47 Modernization at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

According to the Chinook’s manufacturer, Boeing, the first Army CH-47 entered service in 1962. The aircraft flew artillery pieces and supplies to far-flung mountain outposts during the Vietnam War and it moved large number of personnel and vast quantities of supplies and equipment in Iraq.

Chinooks are a valuable tool for commanders in Afghanistan because they can move personnel and supplies to outlying bases without using risky convoys along booby-trapped roads.

However, when missions change, as they often do in a combat zone, crews must spend two hours bolting or unbolting the rollers needed to easily load palletized cargo into a CH-47. Only one in three aircraft is equipped with the rollers, and often there isn’t time to make the change.

Troops clambering onto Chinooks fitted with rollers have broken ankles tripping on them in the dark. Others have injured backs manhandling cargo onto aircraft without rollers, Hoecherl said.

The Army’s solution is the $450,000 Cargo On/Off Loading System (COOLS) — a set of rollers that can be pushed into the aircraft’s floor in a matter of minutes, allowing crews to reconfigure in flight if their mission gets changed, he said.

“If we are en route to pick up passengers and the mission changes to picking up pallets of equipment, we want to be able to change from flat floor to rollers and vice versa in flight,” Hoecherl said. “The same if we are on our way to pick up cargo and we get diverted to pick up casualties.”

The new system can handle three large aluminum Air Force pallets or several smaller pallets — the same load that the old system could handle. However, COOLS allows crews to quickly lock the pallets in place without straps, he said.

CH-47 flight engineer instructor Staff Sgt. Ryan Azevedo, 31, of Sacramento, Calif., said crews are used to working up a sweat on the job but that they will appreciate any help they get from the new cargo system.

Chinook crew members and passengers trip on the rollers “all the time,” so the ability to push the new ones into a floor recess will be welcome, said Azevedo, who flew the CH-47 in Iraq in 2009-10 and is serving with the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Humphries, South Korea.

Another 2nd ID flight engineer instructor with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Eric Grass, 31, of Gilbert, Ariz., said he’s seen plenty of soldiers stumble on the rollers.

“You always have passengers trying to get on and off the aircraft carrying bags, and they are not necessarily watching their feet,” he said.

The Chinook upgrade includes an under-floor ballistic protection system to shield passengers from small-arms fire. It will replace awkward bulletproof blankets being used on some aircraft in Afghanistan, Hoecherl said.

The Army is also fitting the Chinooks with monitors that will alert mechanics to vibration issues or when parts need to be replaced – something the Army hopes will lead to fewer breakdowns.

Further upgrades to the CH-47 are in the planning stages. Engineers are designing a new rotor blade made with composite materials that allow for a more efficient shape that should increase the aircraft’s lift capacity by a ton. The new rotors will be flight tested in fiscal year 2016, Hoecherl said.

The Army has upgraded two CH-47s and will do an additional 303 for $137 million. The improvements will be incorporated in more than 100 newly built CH-47Fs that the Army will take delivery of in 2015. The improvements will also be offered to nations buying older CH-47s from the Army, he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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