Air Force accepts first four MH-139As from Boeing

By Michael Marrow / August 29, 2022 at 4:26 PM

After wrapping up certifications mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration that contributed to a program delay of over a year, the Air Force has accepted the first four MH-139A Grey Wolf helicopters from Boeing, the company announced in an Aug. 25 press release.

Procurement of the Grey Wolf was deferred from the fiscal year 2022 budget to FY-23 due to pending completion of three civil airworthiness subtype certifications. Anticipating that the FAA certifications would proceed on time, the Air Force announced at its budget unveiling in March that the service would seek to resume procurement of the helicopter, asking Congress for $174.1 million to fund low-rate initial production of five aircraft in FY-23.

Built by a joint Boeing-Leonardo team, the Grey Wolf is adapted from the civilian AW139 and is set to replace the aging UH-1N helicopter fleet, with the primary purpose of guarding the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

According to the Government Accountability Office’s annual weapon system assessment published in June, Boeing “underestimated the scale of design work” of the aircraft and “experienced challenges integrating components that are new to the existing airframe.” The difficulties encountered during the aircraft’s development contributed to a 16-month delay, GAO wrote.

During the Life Cycle Industry Days hosted by the Air Force earlier this month in Dayton, OH, a program official told reporters that the Grey Wolf was prepared to enter military utility testing. The acceptance of the first four helicopters earlier this month by the Air Force enabled that testing to proceed, and an all-Air Force crew first piloted the aircraft Aug. 17, according to a service press release.

The program’s milestone C target date is January 2023, Air Force Global Strike Command spokeswoman Jill LaVoie wrote to Inside Defense, which would begin low-rate initial production. Developmental test and evaluation is then scheduled to conclude by Oct. 1, 2023, LaVoie wrote, and the Air Force plans to begin an anticipated six-month-long initial operational test and evaluation phase in the third quarter of FY-24.

The Air Force plans to buy up to 80 of the helicopters, and the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a report accompanying its mark-up of the FY-23 budget request that they would authorize $100 million more to procure three additional helicopters in FY-23, writing that the Air Force should replace the UH-1N fleet “expeditiously.”

As the Air Force’s testing of the helicopter proceeds, the service may discover new complications with the aircraft, GAO warned in its weapon system assessment. “Given the design instability,” GAO wrote, “there are risks that later design changes could result in significant rework of aircraft already in production and retrofit of aircraft already delivered.”