I want one of these.
The Kamov Ka-50 Hokum, also nicknamed Black Shark (after its appearance in a film of the same name), Werewolf and Alligator, is one highly capable combat helicopter. It constitutes 90% of Russia's current generation of ground attack helicopters, also designed to be a combat helo killer. It was first seen by the West at the 1992 Paris Airshow and entered service with the Russian Army in 1995.
The Ka-50 is commonly seen as a stablemate to Mil's Mi-28 Havoc. Although they were both prototyped in 1982, competing to replace the Mi-24 Hind, they are highly different. The Hokum officially won the competition - apparently besting the Havoc in all trials undertaken by both aircraft - but the Havoc was requested for further development as well. The reasons for this are quite foggy at present though it's not impossible that Mil's political influence had something to do with it. Allegedly they interfered in the Soviet government's selection process wherever they could, not being above slander of the opposition.
This small helicopter is easily recognisable by the twin, stacked coaxial rotor blades, lack of tail rotor, flattened nose section and mid-mounted wings. If that doesn't help, you can see one in the opening sequence of the worst film ever.
The genesis of the Ka-50 and the Mi-28 was the operational problems encountered by the Soviet army using the Mi-24 Hind. Although very fast - at the time, nothing was faster - its handling was poor for combat situations (particularly at speed) and it was constrained by increasingly antiquated avionics and design problems making it unsuited to certain environments. The design was almost a decade old when the Soviet government decided to commission a replacement in 1976. Aircraft designs are often operational for far longer than this so one could perhaps opine that the Mi-24 had not met expectations.
The Soviet government assigned the Kamov and Mil design bureaus to develop a replacement for the Hind, to build prototypes and to stage competitive demonstrations of their respective creations. The brief was for a close support helicopter to attack front-line targets, mainly armour. Russia wanted a tank killer.
The Hokum is quite a small helicopter, almost two metres shorter than a US Apache, which itself isn't the biggest helicopter around. Mostly this is down to the absence of a tail rotor and the resulting shorter tail boom. It has a tall rotor mast with twin, stacked main rotors and twin engines immediately below on either side of the fuselage. The cockpit is in front of the engines; its curved roof flush with the lines of the fuselage and meeting a flat, slanted front. The nose is quite snout-like, coming to a very blunt end about one metre in front of the cockpit.
From the centre of the fuselage extend two wings, about two metres long. Three weapon pylons are suspended from each of these and there is a pod on the end of each wing, presumably housing electronics of some kind. Behind these the fuselage only extends to about 20cm beyond the 14.5m diameter of the rotor discs. It terminates in an empennage similar to that of an aircraft, with a vertical stabiliser and a H-shaped tailplane mounted a 2/3 along the tail boom.
Notably the Hokum design does away with the navigator position altogether. Much of the aircraft systems are automated to take some stress away from the pilot. It was viewed as a great boon to reduce the personnel required to fly a fleet of these helicopters; less pilot training would be required, there would be less potential losses in a conflict and costs would be reduced, an issue steadily gaining importance on the Soviet government's agenda.
The weight saved by foregoing the navigator position not only means the helicopter can be lighter – no armour is required for a second crew position - but that extra protection can be given to the pilot. The pilot's cabin can withstand 23mm gunfire, the canopy itself able to withstand 12.7mm gunfire. The only drawback to the single-man crew is potential increased stress on the pilot, but more on that later.
For the design of the Hokum, then only known as the 'V-80', Kamov considered several rotor configurations but quickly discarded them in favour of their preferred coaxial configuration, which they invented decades earlier. The coaxial rotor system does away with a tail rotor entirely, instead using two contra-rotating main rotors set one above the other. Yaw control is achieved by varying the pitch of each set of rotor blades in relation to one another (see helicopter yaw control for more details of this).
The 14.5m diameter rotor blades are made from composite materials, like much of the helicopter. They are attached to the rotor hub by a torsion bar, removing many moving parts used by other helicopters; most helicopters' main rotor blades are hinged in some way where they join the hub.
One of the key benefits of a coaxial rotor system is the weight saved by the absence of a tail rotor and consequently the greatly reduced moment of inertia for the whole helicopter. Put in layman's terms, the helicopter requires much less effort to turn and can therefore be far more manoeuvrable than a similar-sized helicopter with a tail rotor. A Hokum can perform a pedal turn (a turn on the spot, the 'spot' being the rotor shaft in this case) through its entire speed range. This is simply impossible for any other kind of helicopter and has distinct advantages in a dogfight: a pursuing enemy could suddenly be treated to a faceful of gunfire.
The coaxial rotor system also meant thrust could be increased without having to increase the output of the engines, meaning the helicopter could operate at higher altitudes. Furthermore the absence of a delicate tail rotor means aircraft survivability is increased further. Hind pilots found out how vulnerable tail rotors were during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as mujahadin soldiers discovered what a well-aimed rock could do to a helicopter.
Like its competitor the Havoc, the Hokum has redundant systems for backup and protection of vital systems. In a now-quite common configuration the twin 2,200hp Klimov TV3-117VK turboshaft engines are mounted one on either side of the fuselage so only one may be disabled by a direct hit. These engines also have heat dispersal devices on their exhausts to minimise the risk from heat-seeking missiles. At the other end, deflectors and separators are fitted to protect the engines from ingesting dust at unprepared airfields. The helicopter can safely fly on one engine for a while should one be disabled; this configuration can also be found on the Mi-28 Havoc, the AH-64 Apache, the Eurocopter Tiger and Italy's Mangusta A129.
Further survivability features include a gearbox that can operate without oil for up to half an hour, rotor blades that can survive direct hits, self-sealing fuel tanks and a central beam of kevlar/nomex composite on the underside of the fuselage to shield critical components.
The Ka-50 also incorporates the world's first helicopter ejector seat. This is claimed to operate successfully throughout the helicopter’s whole speed range. When activated, explosive bolts in the rotor blade roots detonate, shedding the rotor blades before the pilot seat or seats eject upwards from the cockpit. Don't be standing nearby when that happens.
Avionics & Armament
Kamov contracted much of the construction work for the Hokum and in a few cases employed off the shelf systems in the design. One of these was the helicopter's targeting and weapon system, which was developed by the Tula instrument-building design bureau and had already been used as tank-mounted munitions. The main feature of this system was the low-power laser designator that the anti-tank missile rode to its target. So low powered, in fact, that it falls below the detection threshold of most laser warning systems, helping to keep the helicopter hidden.
The computer systems of the Ka-50 bring it more in line with Western counterparts, enabling it to receive targeting data from other military units or satellites, and to hand off its own targets to other helicopters or command centres.
The Hokum can carry up to two tons of munitions, including twelve AT-16 "Vikhr" anti-tank missiles, two 20-round unguided rocket pods and 450 or 500 rounds of cannon ammunition (depending which source you read). These are usually split between fragmentation and explosive, incendiary rounds. The missiles are claimed to have a hit probability close to one against tanks up to 8 kilometres away; they are highly resistant to jamming.
Where to mount the 30mm cannon on the helicopter was quite a sticking point in the design process. It was the heaviest of those available (but one of the most accurate) and installing it in the nose would have had nasty recoil effects on stability (also reducing gun accuracy) and increase the helicopter's height and weight, as structural bracing would have to be incorporated. It was eventually decided to install it between the gearbox support spars, under the starboard wing at the centre of gravity of the fuselage. This was the strongest point of the helicopter so no more reinforcement was necessary.
The drawback of installing the cannon there was that it would be fixed, unlike the pivoting nose-mounted guns of the Mi-28 and AH-64. However the high turning rate of the Hokum means the gun can be brought to bear on a target just as fast, and in some cases faster than its rivals. An on-board targeting computer can also be set to keep the gun (the helicopter, really) pointed at particular target, while the pilot manoeuvres around it (strafing, for example).
As mentioned earlier the single-seat configuration had the capacity to put quite a strain on the pilot if they were forced to fly the helicopter and operate all of the navigation, sighting and targeting systems manually. For this reason a sighting system was installed that could take care of itself as much as possible. It would designate targets based on their threat level, track them and guide missiles to them if necessary without constant input from the pilot.
In January 2001, two Ka-50 helicopters were deployed in combat tests against rebel forces in Chechnya. These included operations in high-altitude areas above 5000m, which Mi-24 support helicopters could not reach. The helicopters reportedly performed well, destroying 30 large-scale targets of various descriptions including "large groups of Chechen rebels, clusters of vehicles and bases in hard-to-reach mountain areas"(1).
Detection of targets was easy due to the onboard electronics and another 'review' by the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army (LtGen. Yevgeny Kashitsyn, a pilot with over 3,500 hours at the time) praised the good pilot visibility of the Ka-50 and its good stability and manoeuvrability. In summary he said that the Ka-50 "make[s] the pilot feel both confident and comfortable in flight. And it is the human psychology that is often decisive, especially when tough missions are at stake."(7)
However, it has been suggested that one of the reasons the Mi-28 might have been developed further despite the Ka-50 being chosen for production was over concerns of the single-seat configuration of the Ka-50. If true not all involved were convinced that the Hokum's onboard computers could take sufficient stress away from the pilot, particularly in a combat situation. Partly for this reason an alternative to the Ka-50 was developed that specifically addressed these concerns.
Normally this would warrant another writeup but the Ka-52 is merely a reworking of the Ka-50 with two seats in a side-by-side configuration. It is thus easily recognisable by its wider, more rounded nose and cockpit with gull-wing window-doors. Dual controls are installed so each of the pilots may divert their attention elsewhere while the other flies the helicopter. It also means the Ka-52 may be used as a trainer for the Ka-50 since the flight controls of the two are identical, although the Ka-52 is slightly heavier.
The original Ka-50 was not very well suited to nighttime operations with the avionics that it had installed. The Ka-52 fixes this by adding head-mounted displays for the pilots, all-weather target detection, infrared imaging cameras for target identification at night and daytime TV cameras.
Although this makes the Ka-50 better for the pilot the real intention was to develop a good command and control helicopter which could control a flight of Ka-50s, delegate targets and maintain contact with a command post. It was not intended to replace, more to augment the existing force of Ka-50s, much as the US' AH-64 Apache Longbow does the 'standard' AH-64s. It enables a flight commander to concentrate on commanding their forces while someone else flies his helicopter, but retaining the facility to do so if necessary.
This was an export version of the Ka-50, developed jointly by Kamov and Israel Aircraft Industries as an entry for a competition to supply the Turkish army, which would order 145 from the winner. It appears to be a reworking of the Ka-52, since it carries two crewmembers, but this time in a tandem configuration more like that of the Apache or Havoc. The nose is much more streamlined than its predecessors, though it is a lot longer and quite bulbous.
The Erdogan has a 'glass cockpit' electronics suite supplied by IAI, making the aircraft compatible with the systems of NATO countries and also has a nose-mounted gun turret, again like the Apache and Havoc. Otherwise the helicopter appears to be the same, though it is difficult to tell because only one photograph exists in circulation.
The contract to supply Turkey was awarded to Bell Corporation with its AH-1Z King Cobra, so this variant will most likely not see production.
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