All the automation at the delivery end is necessary because the helicopter can dip below the horizon when it descends, meaning the line-of-sight control system no longer works. But it will still automatically set down its cargo and rise back to the point where it’s controllable again.
The program isn’t secret, but it’s almost unknown on base. The helicopters fly from a remote corner of Bastion, mainly at night, when the weather’s usually better and the air cooler and more dense, so the rotor blades are more efficient.
The aircraft now fly six days a week, and up to six flights a day. Often they fly cargoes of water or food, but they also have delivered crucial replacement parts for the improvised bomb-defeating system on a damaged truck and fuel to a small base that was running out.
In Helmand, they’ve built an enviable record of reliability and cost-effectiveness, Lindblom said. The aircraft need only about 1.3 man-hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, and they cost little more than $1,300 an hour to operate, he said. That compares with nearly 23 man-hours for each hour of flight for the CH-53E heavy-lift helicopter and more than $11,000 an hour to operate it, according to statistics supplied by the Marine Corps.
The CH-53E can carry four times as much cargo – the K-MAX is allowed to carry no more than 4,500 pounds per run – and it’s faster, but it also has to fly in pairs for security reasons. That requires a total of 10 crew members and puts them at risk.
The cost savings, performance and reduction in the risk and drudgery mean that the wider use of such helicopters, inside and outside the military, is inevitable, Lindblom said.
"This is the wave of the future, and there’s just no question about it," he said. "About the only problem with it is that we don’t have 20 or 30 more of them."