FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- An aircraft that never quite made it into the Army's operational inventory and looks like something out of a science-fiction movie is now on display at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.
The Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche -- one of only two of the helicopters that were built and flew -- on display at the Aviation museum had been in storage but it can now be viewed by the public, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
"This (aircraft) was a revolutionary design and it was something that was designed totally thinking outside of the box," said the curator. "It was designed to incorporate a lot of new technology, such as radar absorption and defeating geometrics, and was also designed to have a very low infrared profile. Radar-guided missiles and infrared-guided missiles are two great threats to Army helicopters, so this aircraft addressed both those threats with its radical design and engineering."
Mitchell said that the Comanche is currently the museum's biggest draw, but despite that, the display is only temporary until the museum can procure an AH-64 Apache, which will go where the Comanche currently sits.
"The issue with our museum is that we have a space problem, and we only have room to exhibit what was actually in the operational inventory, so that means we can't put a lot of the cool stuff we have in storage on display -- the Comanche is one of those," he said.
The helicopter's concept came about as a result of conflicts in the late 70s, according to Mitchell. It was designed around the term, "come-as-you-are war," which essentially meant that the military fighting force had to be ready for combat at a moment's notice.
"You're not going to have days, weeks or months to prepare and mobilize," he said. "You're going to have to get over there and address the threat pretty quickly, and the idea of an aircraft that could be broken down quickly and loaded into the belly of a C-5 (Galaxy aircraft) or a C-141 (Starlifter aircraft) and deployed somewhere in the world overnight started to emerge."
The Army wanted an aircraft that could be deployed quickly, had revolutionary technologies, could perform the duties of reconnaissance and also have light anti-tank capabilities, and thus the Comanche was born, said Mitchell.
The aircraft featured a radar-defeating geometric design that allowed stealth capabilities. The weapons bays were housed inside the aircraft and would only be visible while in use, further decreasing the aircrafts chance of detection.
In addition to its radar stealth capabilities, the Comanche also had a low infrared signature that allowed the helicopter to keep a low profile when faced with infrared sensors, said the curator.
On a conventional helicopter, fuel is compressed, combusted and expelled as heat that is easily detectable with infrared sensors, said Mitchell. But with the Comanche, the exhaust is vented along a porcelain array that runs along the tail of the helicopter and air is drawn down to further cool the exhaust, reducing its infrared profile.
The aircraft also had a host of sensor technologies, night-vision capabilities, sight capabilities and a plethora of other revolutionary technologies, but as parts continued to be added to the aircraft, the weight also increased significantly.
"The Army's requirements for the aircraft were basically hard stops (in its research and development)," Mitchell. "The weight requirement was essential, as well as size, and unfortunately for the Comanche, over the years the weight just kept increasing and increasing well over what the Army's requirements were.
"Instead of drawing a line in the sand and going with an 80-percent solution, they just kept modifying and modifying and modifying," he said. "As a result, the helicopter was in research and development for the better part of 25 years, and anything that languishes in R&D for that long is probably never going to see the light of day."
Essentially, the parts that made the Comanche great were the same things that led to its ultimate downfall, and the program was ended in 2004. Although the helicopter is regarded by many as a failure, the Comanche program pioneered a lot of technology that is used in the Army's current fleet of helicopters, Mitchell said.
"A lot of great technology came out of this aircraft," he added. "Even though we didn't get the aircraft, we got all of the great technology that came out of it and it provided the Army with a lot of great resources."