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Czechs prepare for the Venom and Viper

By Chris Thatcher | February 13, 2023

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 49 seconds.

When the foundation of your maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) expertise rests on Soviet-era helicopters, transitioning to a western platform is no small matter.

The Czech Republic is set to receive the first four of 12 Bell H-1 aircraft in May.

Later this year, the armed forces of the Czech Republic will begin receiving 12 Bell H-1 aircraft — four AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and eight UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters. The twin-engine, four-bladed platforms are modern variants of the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey.

Delivery of the first four — potentially two Vipers and two Venom — is expected in May, and that has required some significant adjustments for LOM Praha, a state-owned enterprise that will assume responsibility for lifecycle support of the new fleets.

“The big challenge for us is the transition between the Eastern and Western types,” acknowledged Jan Kalita, director of modernization and modification for LOM Praha’s helicopter division.

Given the company’s lengthy history of maintaining the military’s Mi helicopters, LOM Praha was a “logical choice to cooperate with Bell on the support of this fleet as well,” he told Vertical during a recent interview.

The Czech Air Force currently operates 15 Mi-171 and five Mi-17 transport helicopters and 10 Mi-24 larger attack and transport helicopters that are interoperable with NATO partners. The Mi-171 operates with the NATO Special Operations Air Tasking Unit and about half are scheduled to undergo a major upgrade that will include a full glass cockpit, and new armor and weapons.

Still, adjusting to Bell’s approach and maintenance standards will be a substantial change from how Russia has guided fleet sustainment, Kalita said. Russian and Bell helicopters may both be “a flying piece of metal,” but there are “huge differences” in their approach.

The Russian “design school” is based on what he called “safe life,” where a part is replaced after a certain number of flying hours, no matter its condition. The “Western approach” is more about frequent checks, component tolerance and integrity, and replacement as required, he said.

“In the Russian way of maintenance, there is a big general overhaul — after seven years or 1,500 flight hours,” he explained. “Everything stops for a year while the aircraft is overhauled. On [the Bell helicopters] there is no such huge maintenance — the maintenance is cut into smaller checks.”

The higher-level checks will be performed by LOM Praha while the military will conduct the first line checks, he added.

The Czech Air Force currently operates 15 Mi-171 and five Mi-17 transport helicopters and 10 Mi-24 larger attack and transport helicopters.

With military platforms becoming more and more software reliant, companies like Bell will be recommending continuous sustainment and iterative upgrades, rather than large midlife overhauls, he acknowledged. The transition from the Mi platform to the H-1 Viper and Venom is a “generational jump,” Kalita noted, “but we are quite experienced in this field. These new types present a new challenge but due to our experience I think we will be able to manage that.”

Though the principles of maintenance remain the same, LOM Praha’s technicians will have to adapt to different technical and documentation standards. But the Czech company anticipates strong “logistics support” from Bell and its supply chain. “You can have spare parts almost on time. Or you have written lead times [and you] can order in advance according to the schedule,” he said.

To sustain the Mi fleets, which date from the early 1970s, “we had to develop quite a strong skill for reverse engineering,” Kalita said. “Definitely we have got the ability to [manufacturer parts]. But that is [also] why we would like to have close technical contact with Bell, because for some parts it is much easier to develop it and manufacture it here in the Czech Republic, but under the supervision of Bell, then to order it and ship it from the U.S.”

In advance of the first deliveries, LOM Praha created a new unit called H1 Division to assume responsibility for lifecycle support of the H1 helicopters and also signed a technical cooperation agreement (TCA) with GE Aviation for engine maintenance. It expects to ink a similar TCA with Bell once the first helicopters arrive in the Czech Republic.

In the build up to that, the company has established areas of focus, what it is calling “projects of industrial cooperation,” to prepare for the expanded portfolio. These include technician type training, ground support equipment and testing devices, and specialized courses. Engine training is slated to begin in March and airframe and avionics training in May.

The company is also eyeing the possibility of an expanded H1 fleet as the Czech government completes negotiations with the U.S. for eight more helicopters. The state of the additional aircraft and the scope of the work required are still to be determined, Kalita said, but the deal could involve two more Venom and eight more Viper helicopters from the U.S. Marine Corps.

“These eight helicopters need to be modified because they are an older version and they don’t meet the standard which is produced right now,” he said. Final assembly would be completed in the Czech Republic.

Even as it prepares to take on the H1 maintenance, LOM Praha remains committed to the Mi “workhorses,” many of which are expected to operate until the mid-2030s. After Russia launched its war in Ukraine in February 2022 and parts support became almost impossible, LOM Praha was appointed as a type certificate holder for the Mi-17 and Mi-171 by the Czech Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA).

“It is good for our air force but also for other users of Mi helicopters whose MAA is not so advanced or don’t want to be responsible for this,” Kalita observed. “We are able to offer our services in this field for Mi users.”

LOM Praha is also closely monitoring Ministry of Defense progress to acquire tactical uncrewed combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) and ongoing negotiations with the U.S. for F-35 Lightning II fighter jets for any potential roles in Lockheed Martin’s MRO plans and supply chain. “For the future, we would like to orient on UAVs,” he said. “We would like to be the MRO for these birds, so we are closely cooperating with OEMs.”

The Czech Republic is only the third foreign military customer for the UH-1Y/AH-1Z, after Pakistan and Bahrain, and the only NATO country so far to acquire the updated Huey and Cobra. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked interest from neighboring countries for western types, and Kalita expects others may follow the Czech lead.

As Vertical reported recently, Bell is targeting operators of Russian-built airframes with militarized versions of its civil helicopter line, recognizing that many may be struggling with the knock-on effect of crippling economic sanctions against Russia. The Bell 407 is the first to be fitted with a weapon mounting system and a multi-sensor imaging capabilities, but the 412 is also being suggested as a military type — the Canadian Armed Forces currently operates a military variant of the 412 for its tactical aviation.

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