By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Powerful, agile, and elegant, the MD 969 is…an advanced, twin-engine, light-attack helicopter that delivers impressive endurance, speed, maneuverability, and unmatched safety. With…a capability not currently offered on any light helicopter…the definitive choice for an ever- expanding range of military and paramilitary operations.”
— Lynn Tilton, CEO of MD Helicopters, Inc., 2019.
“There were many helicopters in the European market, but the H145 was at the top of the list. Going from the Soviet helicopters to the H145M has been a big step up; it’s like a brand-new era for us…We’ve jumped into the digital era with the H145M…It will also be used for Special Forces missions…the performance and power margin is just amazing!”
— Colonel Tamás Bali, Ph.D., Deputy Base Commander, Szolnok Helicopter Wing, Hungarian Air Force.
The MD 969 Twin Attack Helicopter, produced by MD Helicopters, Inc. (MDHI, formerly McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems), of Mesa, Arizona, is a high-performance, multi-mission, light, combat-attack aircraft, introduced on March 5, 2019, as an upgraded version of their field-proven, MD 902 Explorer-series, twin-engine helicopter.
The basic, MD 900 Explorer civilian, helicopter airframe was certified and first flew in 1994, powered by two Pratt and Whitney Canada PW 206A turboshaft engines, each rated at 550 shaft horsepower, and a five-blade, fully-articulated, Kaman Aerospace main-rotor assembly, and capable of carrying six passengers in a cabin behind the two-person, cockpit crew. It was the first helicopter to have a major portion of its structure constructed from composite materials, and the first commercial helicopter totally designed using computer-aided, design techniques. The all-composite, carbon-fiber-and-resin fuselage is manufactured by Hawker deHavilland in Australia, and there is an all-composite, main rotor system. There is, however, a titanium roof, which provides protection from any possible fires in the engines.
At the June 1995 Paris Air Show, a camouflaged, MD 900 Combat Explorer armed variant was unveiled, using aircraft #N9015P as a demonstrator. It was equipped with a FLIR sensor beneath the nose section, a roof-mounted, NightHawk targeting system, and possible armament consisted of .50-caliber, heavy machine gun pods or GAU-19/A Gatling guns, and seven-shot or 19-shot, 70mm rocket pods. But there were no customers during the next five years, so this initial, gunship concept never fully materialized.
In 1997, the MD 900 was superseded by the improved MD 902 Explorer, with twin PW 207E engines (since late 2000), each rated at 572 horsepower. They are operated by various police forces in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, and Luxembourg, by London’s Air Ambulance in England, by HeliServices in Hong Kong, and by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. National Park Service (NPS.)
Approximately 150 of these MD 900/MD 902 helicopters have been sold worldwide, and the only military customers have been the U.S. Coast Guard, which leased four MD 902s from 1998 to 2000 as the MH-90 Enforcer, one of which was the original, MD 900 Combat Explorer demonstrator #N9015P, and the Mexican Naval Aviation Service, which still operates five (of six delivered) MD 902 Explorers from Tampico, with the 1st Shipborne Patrol Naval Air Squadron.
One very distinctive feature of the Explorer series is the proprietary, MDHI-exclusive, Boeing-designed, NOTAR (NO TAil Rotor) system, venting pressurized air from a variable-pitch fan through the hollow, composite, tail boom, to louvers on the tail for anti-torque and directional/yaw control, replacing the standard, tail rotor. This was the world’s first helicopter to incorporate the NOTAR configuration from its initial design, providing increased safety, lower noise levels, and improved performance and controllability.
With its unique combination of twin engines for power and reliability, an all-composite fuselage for light weight and corrosion resistance, and the NOTAR system for safety and controllability, the MD 902 Explorer was indeed, well suited for shipboard operations on naval vessels, with both the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Mexican Navy. In this respect, it could fulfill the same naval roles and missions as the Russian Navy’s veteran, Ka-29TB Helix-B shipborne, attack helicopter, but the Explorer is smaller (32 feet long, versus 37 feet), lighter (a feather-light, 7,000 pounds versus 24,000 pounds), faster (141 knots cruise speed, versus 111 knots), and certainly less obtrusive, while carrying the same number of weapon stations, but with lighter, more-compact weapons.
Although they were only fully operational for about a year and a half, from 1998 to 2000, the Coast Guard’s MH-90 Enforcers were instrumental in the formation of the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, specializing in Airborne Use of Force (AUF) and drug-interdiction missions.
The Enforcers were each armed with one FN M240G/H medium machine gun in 7.62mm NATO, and one Barrett M107A1 (long-barrel, 29 inches) or M107CQ (short-barrel, 20 inches) sniper rifle, with an anti-corrosion finish, in .50 BMG, for disabling the outboard engines on fleeing boats (See my “U.S. Coast Guard Special Forces” article in Gunpowder Magazine, dated June 28, 2021.) The MH-90s were subsequently replaced by MH-65D/E Dolphin rescue and law-enforcement helicopters.
The Mexican Navy’s handful of MD 902s are still in service after two decades. Some are apparently orange and white, as of 2015, like the Coast Guard versions, but the most-effective color scheme is a two-tone, light-gray, camouflage pattern, and they have been armed with either GAU-19/A Gatling guns, or seven-shot, 70mm rocket pods, or both.
As of March 27, 2020, the “colorful and controversial reign” of Lynn Tilton, the female CEO at MD Helicopters, Inc., since 2005, appeared to have ended, when she relinquished control to Patriarch Partners following rulings by a Delaware bankruptcy court over indebtedness funds estimated at $1.7 billion. A previous plan to sell off portfolio companies to satisfy the huge debt unraveled in 2018 when Tilton was accused of stalling the sales, and the federal court stepped in by February 2020 to expedite the transactions. MD Helicopters under her rule was unfortunately noted for “mercurial management and the short tenure of senior executives,” according to journalist Mark Huber at AINonline’s General Aviation news center.
At the very heart of all of this dramatic, behind-the-scenes trouble and controversy, MD Helicopters took a bold risk in March 2019, and introduced the all-new, MD 969 Twin Attack Helicopter gunship, utilizing the basic, proven, MD 902 Explorer airframe and its twin engines. This was MDHI’s third attempt to weaponize the Explorer series, after the 1995 MD 900 Combat Explorer venture, and the 1998 MH-90 Enforcer experiment, neither of which was ultimately successful. Perhaps they were hoping that the third time would be a charm, which, of course, remains to be seen.
The MD 969 helicopter gunship incorporates the Genesis Aerosystems Advanced IDU-680 integrated, all-glass, 100-percent-digital, cockpit displays (three of them) used on the company’s own MD 530G Block II Light Scout Attack Helicopter. Also included on the cockpit dashboard is a 12-inch, Macro-Blue tactical display for weapons and mission management. A fully-rotating, FLIR sensor mounted beneath the nose section (currently unspecified, but probably the well-proven, Wescam MX-15D system) provides day/night navigation, and laser target illumination for employing laser-guided weapons.
The Twin Attack Helicopter may execute a broad range of military missions, including light attack, combat search-and-rescue (CSAR, a rescue hoist may be installed), Special Forces raids, troop deployment, medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), command-and-control (C2), and personnel transport, according to the company.
Able to carry a wide range of armament, the MD 969 is equipped with integrated, proprietary, MDHI-designed, composite, weapons planks below the doors on either side of the fuselage, with four permanent, fixed weapon stations, and accommodation for two more when carrying AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles on dual mounting racks.
Up to 3,395 pounds of weapons may be carried, including FN HMP 400 heavy machine gun pods (containing .50-caliber, M3P guns), FN RMP (Rocket and Machine gun Pod combination) pods, GAU-19/A (as used by the Mexican Navy) or GAU-19/B .50-caliber Gatling guns, fixed or crew-served, Profense PF M134 Gatling guns (often called “miniguns”) in 7.62mm, M260 seven-shot or 12-shot, rocket pods, unguided 70mm rockets, AGR-20B Advanced, Precision-Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) or Raytheon Talon 70mm guided missiles, Hellfire II anti-tank missiles, AGM-176A Griffin-A glide bombs, or AGM-176B Griffin-B guided missiles.
It also possesses one very unique and extraordinary weapon system not found on any other helicopter, making it one of the deadliest, precision-strike, attack helicopters in its class. The MD 969 may employ the Systima Technologies Common Launch Tube (CLT) system in an all-new, seven-shot, bundled application, for quietly launching 35-pound, laser-guided, Griffin-A glide bombs or Griffin-B mini-missiles out of the back end of the aircraft. This very same system may also launch a wide range of miniature drones, such as the Raytheon Coyote, ground sensors, sonobuoys, or other military hardware.
The CLT launcher system may be optionally mounted in the rear of the passenger cabin, through the large hole encompassing the former, luggage compartment, aiming downward at an angle beneath the tail boom. These are exactlythe same types of CLTs and weapons employed by the very latest, $95-million, AC-130J Ghostrider aerial gunship, except that the Ghostrider has 10 launch tubes instead of seven, ejecting their munitions tail-first through holes in the rear cargo ramp, and then the weapons instantly flip over in the aerodynamic slipstream around the aircraft, and right themselves within just 10 to 12 feet, quickly dropping nose-first, as was clearly seen in a recent, video clip by Raytheon Technologies.
Finally, the MD 969 Twin Attack Helicopter may be armed with a door-mounted, crew-served, PF M134 Gatling gun in the rear cabin, which has 52-inch-wide, side doors. Profense, LLC, of Phoenix, Arizona, very close to MDHI headquarters in Mesa, Arizona, is a leading producer of electric Gatling guns, including the PF M134 and the PF 556, as well as the single-barrel, PF 50 chain gun. Profense president Michael Iacobucci is a retired (since 2009), U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, with special operations/Ranger experience, who has hired a workforce of more than 50-percent military veterans, with a very clear understanding of the ever-changing, defense industry.
The PF M134 Gatling gun may be either fixed and forward-firing on a weapon station under the stub wings, or hand-fired from the rear cabin by a gunner, usually from the right side, behind the pilot’s seat. It exceeds all military-specification requirements, and is available with a dual-rate, gun-control unit (GCU) that digitally selects the rate of fire at either 1,500 rounds per minute (25 rounds per second) or 3,000 rounds per minute (50 rounds per second), with an effective range of 1,200 yards (over two-thirds of a mile.) The PF M134 employs a visible, patented system of spiraled, cooling fins called the Aeroclamp near the front of the six barrels, providing a 25-percent reduction in heat when firing the weapon. In combat action, the M134 Gatling gun is so fearsome that the renegade, Taliban insurgents of Afghanistan have reverently called it “the Breath of Allah.”
For maximum versatility, the passenger cabin may be configured with or without weapons, and with or without seats, equally capable of performing as a heavily-armed gunship, or transporting a six-man, Special Forces team into action, or with litters and pararescue experts for CSAR missions or MEDEVAC flights.
The MD 902 Explorer series has already enjoyed modest success as a police helicopter and air ambulance, and very limited success as a naval helicopter. Whether the new, MD 969 Twin Attack Helicopter attracts any military customers remains somewhat uncertain at this point, two and a half years after its introduction, but in any event, we can learn from the advanced technology and innovation incorporated into this combat aircraft.
From the all-composite airframe and main rotor assembly, to the NOTAR yaw-controllability system, to the advanced, Profense M134 Gatling guns, and the aircraft’s one-of-a-kind, CLT launcher for laser-guided, Griffin bombs or missiles, there is certainly nothing ordinary or outdated about the exceptional, MD 969 helicopter gunship.
In marked contrast to the MD 969, which has yet to attract any customers, the German-manufactured (at Donauwörth, north of Augsburg), Airbus Helicopters H145M(“M” for “Military”) gunship, in the same general size and class, has met with considerably greater success. It’s derived from the proven, Eurocopter EC145 T2 twin-engine, light utility helicopter, now owned by Airbus, and renamed the H145 since 2015.
With a two-man, flight crew and up to nine passengers, it’s quite similar in size to the MD 969, and powered by a pair of Turboméca/Safran Arriel 2E turboshaft engines, each rated at 828 horsepower, driving a five-blade, composite, bearingless, main-rotor system with a monolithic, titanium hub, all-composite fuselage, and a 10-blade, asymmetrical, composite, Fenestron device in place of a tail rotor, mounted inside an all-composite, tail boom.
The Fenestron, derived from the Latin word fenestra, meaning “window,” is a low-noise, ducted-fan, anti-torque, or “fan-in-fin” assembly in a shrouded, circular housing, making the helicopter very quiet, and promoting lateral stability in flight. As a result, the H145 is the quietest helicopter in its (four-ton) class, an especially desirable characteristic for a special operations, attack aircraft.
In October 2006, the U.S. Army awarded a production contract for 345 new helicopters, based upon the EC145 design. The UH-72A/B Lakota is essentially an off-the-shelf, commercial EC145, with olive-green paint and an ARC-231 radio, used primarily for unarmed, troop transport, light-utility, security, support, and MEDEVAC missions, but only for domestic operations. Oddly enough, the Army recognized that the EC145 was prone to overheating in desert environments, was not considered to be operationally deployable to combat zones, especially in the Middle East, and that combat modifications (as of 2013) were “presently unaffordable,” at an estimated $780 million, and adding nearly 775 pounds of weight to each aircraft. So, the UH-72 is not a U.S. combat aircraft, and is not armed. Six examples were exported to the Royal Thai Army in 2015.
The EC145/H145 is currently operated by civilian and police forces in Brazil, Canada (including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Cayman Islands, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In military service, they are operated by Albania (3 x H145M), Bolivia, Ecuador, France, Germany (22 x H145M), Hungary (20 x H145M), Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Serbia (12 x H145M), Thailand (Navy), and the United Kingdom (Royal Air Force.) There are more than 1,500 EC145/H145s in service worldwide, with 34 nations and at least 100 individual agencies or governments.
The H145M military helicopter, which was initially certified in May 2015, is fitted with an all-glass, Thales Avionics flight-control display system, a state-of-the-art, Helionix digital avionics suite, a head-up display (HUD), and can be fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks, ballistic armor plating, pintle-mounted, 7.62mm FN MAG or M134D machine guns, military-grade communication systems, an electronic-warfare, self-protection system, crash-resistant seats, a fast-roping system, recue hoist, cargo hooks, and other military-grade features. The latest price quote for the H145Mis approximately $9.7 million.
Troops may rapidly enter and exit either through the side doors, or via the rear, clamshell doors, a special, design feature to facilitate MEDEVAC missions. In addition, the H145 is the only helicopter in its class to be able to take off and land at a lofty altitude of up to 20,000 feet, a feat confirmed in September 2019 over Aconcagua (22,837 feet tall), the highest mountain in the Americas, in the towering, Andes Mountains of Argentina.
The 15 EC145 T2/H145Maircraft operated since late 2015 by the German Air Force in direct support of the nation’s elite Special Operations Command (KSK) have maintained a mission-readiness rate of 99 percent. Two of them were recently deployed to Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021, actually at the request of the U.S. government, to help evacuate German citizens and other NATO personnel from downtown Kabul during the frenzied, chaotic, and disastrous (Joe Biden administration), American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The H145M may be armed with the Airbus HForce modular, armament system, certified in 2018, and based upon knowledge gained from the Eurocopter EC665 Tiger attack helicopter. HForce provides two external weapon stations, and the heart of the system is the Rockwell Collins Deutschland (RCD) FMC-4212 General Purpose Computer (GPC), a Thales Scorpion monocular, helmet-mounted sight display (HMSD), and a Wescam MX-15D FLIR sensor for day/night targeting and laser illumination.
The dual weapon stations can mount an FN HMP250 (heavy machine-gun pod, with an FN M3P .50-caliber gun and 250 rounds of ammunition), an NC621 (Nexter Cannon, M621) 20mm gun pod with 180 rounds of ammunition, seven-shot or 12-shot, unguided, 68mm or Hydra-70 rocket pods, Thales FZ275 laser-guided, 70mm missiles, or Rafael/Eurospike (of Israel and Germany) fifth-generation, Spike-ER2 imaging-infrared, anti-tank missiles (demonstrated in live-fire tests Hungary in early 2021.)
Air-to-air missiles such as the heat-seeking, MBDA Missile Systems Mistral M3 may be added in the future. The first export customer for the HForce system was Serbia, with an order for nine H145Ms (they call it the H-50B), including four equipped with HForce weapons capability and 80mm rockets. The Hungarian Air Force also has 20 more H145Ms with HForce armament systems.
So, which helicopter gunship is better, the MD 969 or the H145M? Perhaps “better” is a relative term, since they both have their distinct advantages. The MD 969 has more weapon stations, therefore more firepower, and the innovative, Systima Technologies CLT launchers for Griffin-A mini-bombs, but has acquired no sales interest to date. The proven H145M is considerably more successful in terms of actual customers, carries more troops internally, and only has two weapon stations, but it’s tough to beat a hard-hitting, 20mm cannon and 12 rounds of FZ275, laser-guided, 70mm missiles in any event. If an interested air force had to pick just one of them for its new gunship, the Airbus H145M would be the clear winner.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.