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The Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne Attack Helicopter Might Have Been a Formidable Weapon

The U.S. Army hoped the Cheyenne would be a high-tech leap forward for Army aviation

In the 1960s, the Army tested the AH-56A Cheyenne, an attack helicopter that might have revolutionized warfare. Had a civilian version existed, it might have changed aviation.

Instead, the Cheyenne became a “might have been.” It was costly and technologically challenging. It may have been too advanced for its time. Its performance in flight was sometimes “spectacular,” as one pilot put it, but there were minor kinks that were never quite ironed out.

During vertical and hovering flight all power was applied to the main and anti-torque rotors, while during forward flight all but about 700shp was shafted to the pusher propeller. In forward flight lift was generated by the stub wings and windmilling main rotor. In “clean” configuration the AH-56A was capable of sea-level speeds in excess of 275 miles per hour.

The AH-56A was also called the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS). During the period when the United States was building up its troop strength in Vietnam, the AH-56 became a bold attempt to compete with the Air Force for a key role in air-to-ground support. The Cheyenne was a highly sophisticated compound rotorcraft incorporating design features pioneered in Lockheed’s earlier XH-51A test ship.

Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne

Lockheed’s AH-56 Cheyenne, an aircraft ahead of its time. Note the pusher propeller at the tail. Photo from the Robert F. Dorr Collection

It was a long, slim helicopter with retractable landing gear, small wings that spanned almost 27 feet, and a General Electric T64-GE-16 shaft turbine engine with a four-bladed rotor. The power rating of the engine was increased to 3,922 horsepower as the test program evolved.

The Cheyenne used an innovative propulsion system built around the T64. The powerplant drove a rigid, four-bladed, gyro-stabilized main rotor, the tail-mounted anti-torque rotor, and the pusher propeller at the extreme end of the tail boom.

During vertical and hovering flight all power was applied to the main and anti-torque rotors, while during forward flight all but about 700shp was shafted to the pusher propeller. In forward flight lift was generated by the stub wings and windmilling main rotor. In “clean” configuration the AH-56A was capable of sea-level speeds in excess of 275 miles per hour.

Raymond L. Robb, a Fairborn, Ohio, author of an unpublished history of the AH-56, said in a 2003 interview that the fast, powerful helicopter “could have given the Army a new capability to support its combat troops.”

Giant Leap

The Army was looking for a truly giant leap with the AH-56. The service established exceedingly ambitious goals. It said it wanted an aircraft with a top speed of 220 knots, able to hover out of ground effect at 6,000 feet, with a ferry range of 2,100 nautical miles. A little noticed feature of the Cheyenne, according to Arthur Moss, who wrote the AH-56 flight manual, was its ability to self-deploy over long distances, including the 2,200-mile flight from California to Hawaii.

Although Lockheed had little experience building helicopters, the Army chose its design in 1966.

But in tests the AH-56 had difficulty maintaining stability close to the ground and at high speed. Various design changes seemed to help, but no certain fix had been found when the third Cheyenne built was lost in a crash on March 12, 1969.

The crew of two, pilot and gunner/co-pilot, sat in tandem in an enclosed cockpit. The impressive armament of the Cheyenne included a 30-mm XM140 cannon in a belly turret, and a 40-mm XM129 grenade launcher or 7.62-mm Minigun in a nose turret. Under the wing were six hardpoints for ordnance, consisting of Hughes TOW anti-tank missiles or 2.75-inch folding fin aircraft rockets. The AH-56 had an advanced weapon sighting system that included night vision equipment and a helmet gun sight.

AH-56 Cheyenne Weapons Test

An AH-56 Cheyenne conducting a weapons test. For a helicopter the AH-56 carried an impressive array of weapons, reportedly a bit too impressive for the Air Force. Photo from the Robert F. Dorr Collection

“It was a helicopter carrying the kind of weapons you typically found on an Air Force fighter-bomber,” said Donald F. Segner, the Lockheed test pilot in a 2003 interview.

The Army was enthusiastic enough that in January 1968, it placed an initial production order for 375 aircraft.

As it turned out, only 10 Cheyennes were built.

With Army Lt. Col. Emil “Jack” Kluever on board, Segner took the prototype AH-56 for its first flight at Van Nuys, Calif. on Sept. 21, 1967.

But in tests the AH-56 had difficulty maintaining stability close to the ground and at high speed. Various design changes seemed to help, but no certain fix had been found when the third Cheyenne built was lost in a crash on March 12, 1969.

Accompanied by a chase plane, the Cheyenne was flying at 2,500 feet off the Pacific coast of California. The AH-56 was in the hands of Lockheed test pilot David Beil. As the chase pilot looked on, the Cheyenne’s main rotor oscillated out of control and the blades sliced into the pilot’s canopy and then chopped off the tail boom. Beil was killed instantly. All Cheyennes were grounded temporarily.

Chasing the Cheyenne

The mere task of finding a “chase” aircraft was needed to shadow the Cheyenne on test flights was, in itself, a difficult undertaking. No helicopter could keep up. In fact, none came close.

The Army acquired three F-51D Mustang fighters of World War II vintage, built by North American Aviation, Inc., and later modified by Cavalier Aircraft Corp.

AH-56 Cheyenne Formation

A formation of three AH-56 Cheyenne conducting flight tests. Before the Sikorsky X2, which recently broke the helicopter speed record and employed some of the technology of the Cheyenne, the big Lockheed AH-56 flew far faster than any contemporary helicopter. Photo from the Robert F. Dorr Collection

The Army’s Mustangs differed from World War II versions in having additional fuel, a second cockpit station for a cameraman, and a gyro-stabilized camera mount for the second crewman. Cavalier removed the six .50-caliber Browning M2 machine guns built into the Mustangs. The Army flew them without armament.

According to retired Army Col. Alexander J. Rankin, who led the “chase” effort and uttered the “spectacular” quote about the Cheyenne, about half a dozen Army pilots flew the Mustangs.

According to Roby, the final test report issued just after termination of the program identified the Cheyenne as “the finest aircraft” ever tested at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Following the grounding of the AH-56s, tests resumed in July 1969. By then the Army had abandoned its production order – prematurely, many observers said. The Cheyenne program also suffered from cost increases. Meanwhile, the Army was getting good results with a less advanced, less ambitious helicopter, the AH-1G Huey Cobra, which went into combat in South Vietnam in 1969.

In an Internet posting, David Roby, an engineer on the Cheyenne program, describes himself as one of the “six Cheyenne biased bastards” in a statement attributed to Army Secretary Stanley Resor. Roby lists the following reasons why the Cheyenne didn’t succeed: “Air Force concerns with its A-10 Thunderbolt II program; Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky business practices; Lockheed’s own “failures” on UH-1 Huey depot maintenance contracts, shipbuilding schedule problems; a ‘Golden Handshake Clause’ in the C-5A Galaxy contract, with which Congress took issue, that allowed Lockheed to recoup any financial loss on the contract for the first 25 on any subsequent reorder … and finally the various development problems with the most advanced helicopter ever conceived.”

According to Roby, the final test report issued just after termination of the program identified the Cheyenne as “the finest aircraft” ever tested at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The nation has seen several efforts by the Army to introduce advanced, high-tech helicopters. The RAH-66 Comanche, which was also canceled, began as the LHX project of the late 1980s, which would have pushed technology to the limit. Today, the Army is interested in the X2 demonstrator and the proposed S-97 Raider from Sikorsky, both of which would have cutting-edge features. In a poignant reminder of just how far ahead of its time the Cheyenne was, the X2 has a tail propeller that looks almost like a carbon copy of the Cheyenne’s.

AH-56 Cheyenne Airborne

An AH-56 Cheyenne in flight. Clearly visible is the large bubble canopy over the tandem cockpit that placed the pilot in the rear seat, and the gunner in the front. Photo from the Robert F. Dorr Collection

Had its technical difficulties been overcome and had politics not intervened, the Cheyenne would have been a formidable weapon. In some ways, it was more advanced than today’s AH-64D Longbow Apache, which offers some of the capabilities the Cheyenne had but is not as effective at high altitude. The Cheyenne “was an incredible aircraft,” said Richard Berch, who piloted the AH-56A at the Yuma, Arizona Proving Ground in Arizona. “It would have changed military aviation. A passenger carrying version would have changed short-haul commercial aviation.”

Today, all that remains of the Cheyenne program is an AH-56 at the Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, Ala., another on outdoor display at Fort Polk, L.,a and a third at Fort Campbell, Ky., at the outdoor display of the 101st Airborne Division (Donald F. Pratt Memorial) Museum.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-16785">

    The date of the first flight of the Cheyenne, listed in this article, on October 10, 1967 is in question and possibly incorrect.

    According to its Wikipedia page, the Cheyenne’s first flight was 21 September 1967. The date of its maiden flight is confirmed in the publication “Wings of Fame,” Volume 14, copyright 1999 on page 146.

    In fact, in “Wings of Fame,” Volume 14, copyright 1999, page 146 states, “On 21 September 1967 the Cheyenne (1002) made its maiden flight (which has also been widely but incorrectly recorded as 10 October) with Lockheed test pilot Donald R. Segner at the controls.”

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-16795">
    Robert F. Dorr

    A reader noted that the first flight of the Cheyenne actually took place on September 21, 1967 and cited an article in Wings of Fame from 1999. The reader is correct about the first flight date and the editors here will insert a change.

    I worked on every article about American aircraft in every issue of World Air Power Journal and Wings of Fame and wrote major portions of the AH-56 article that appeared in 1999. I did the interviews that appeared in the earlier article. I no longer remember precisely how Rob Hewson and I divided our labor on that article but I’m responsible for the information being quoted from Wings of Fame by the reader.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-16807">

    Thank you for your follow-up. I have been a helicopter enthusiast for my entire life and have had a fascination about the Cheyenne helicopter, for years. I am also, by the way, the owner of http://www.helicopterlinks.com.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-16875">

    Michaal,
    Thanks for catching our error, and thanks for reading. We’ll be sure to stop by your site.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39717">
    Brooke Gabbey

    My father was David Beil, the test pilot who died testing the AH-56A. I was six weeks old when he died. I appreciate any information regarding his time spent working at Lockheed.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39731">
    Robert F. Dorr

    I wish I could have had an opportunity to learn more about David Beil when writing about the AH-56 Cheyenne. I’m sorry that I don’t have any additional information about him. You can be proud of his achievements and his service,

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39733">
    Michael Hampson

    For Brooke Gabbey: I did a Google search using “David Beil test pilot” without a lot of luck. You might have already done this. However, I did find this link which predates the Cheyenne test flight: http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/2000s/2003/nd03/nd03text.htm

    “Left, the Pacific Fleet naval air commander and the CO of Hornet (CVS 12) greet the pilots of an SH-3A Sea King after a test flight from Hornet on 5 March 1965.

    The next day, copilot Lieutenant David Beil, left, and pilot Commander James Williford took off from Hornet at NAS North Island, Calif, and landed aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) at Mayport, Fla., exceeding the existing distance record for helicopters by more than 700 miles.”

    (By the way, NAS North Island is in San Diego, California. Naval Air Station North Island is on Coronado Island located in the San Diego bay.)

    Coronado, California
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronado,_California

    Have you thought of using the Freedom of Information Act to find more information about your father? http://www.foia.gov/

    I’ve never used the Freedom of Information Act and I don’t know how difficult it is to use; however, the Freedom of Information Act FAQ page seems to be helpful: http://www.foia.gov/faq.html

    After reading through some of the FAQ, it looks as though there might be a fee to use the Freedom of Information Act.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39768">
    Brooke Gabbey

    To Robert Dorr and Michael Hampson: Thank- you for your interest and information. I did know about my father’s cross country helicopter record but not all the details. I will definitely look into the Freedom of Information Act for further info with regards to my father’s career at Lockheed. I have inquired directly to Lockheed before but I have not received any response.
    My father was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Princeton, then the Naval academy in Annapolis. He served in Vietnam as a naval helicopter pilot doing SAR missions in North Vietnam. He said the most significant thing he ever did was rescuing men trapped or downed in enemy territory. He helped his two younger brothers financially through college. He married my mom Jan, a stewardess with Eastern, and had my older sister Kelly and I. My mom said he was a great husband and dad. He left the military and went to work for Lockheed. We lived in Westlake Village when he died. He was 33 years old.
    My mom met my new father, Leif Jonassen, the following year. He was an army helicopter pilot and served in Vietnam. Then he worked as a commercial airline pilot. They had my younger sister Mari. He officially adopted Kelly and I and has been an amazing, wonderful Dad to us.
    My older sister and I got our pilots’ licenses and my younger sister and I worked as flight attendants.
    I am proud of my father Dave.. I’m so glad he met me before he died. I just wish I had had a chance to know him.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39814">

    Hi Brooke: Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it. How little do we know about test pilots. It sounds like your father was a great guy. -Mike

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39834">
    Brooke Gabbey

    Thanks! Yes he was.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-45897">
    robert townshend

    my name is robert townshend i was in yuma proveing grounds working as a airfrfame spec. i saw it fly and was very proud to be part of the test. it did not crash in yuma. i have alot ot resect for the people that flew it.i later went to vietnam an that copter would have made alot of troops come home safe it was a great aircraft and could of been fixed. it had a rotion problen every 8th rotation that made the rotors to dip.the fix i feel would of slower the the forward speed and not put so much stran on the blades when in push prop mode when it was a fixedwing aircraft mode. it was a real oversight of the army. it still think is the best heliopter design i have ever worked on and flowen in all of them

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-109576">

    Is anyone aware of any armarment testing of the AH-56 near Mojave, California while it was stationed at Edwards AFB?