Boeing has begun flight-testing the AH-64D Block III, the latest variant of the Apache gunship helicopter. The first flight occurred at Mesa, Arizona, on June 27. The Block III modernization initiative moved forward in response to the cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche, and uses funds and technology redirected from that program.
Boeing won a development contract for Block III in July 2005, although testing of new composite rotor blades had already ended in May 2004. The U.S. Army awarded the system development and demonstration contract in July 2006, and Boeing expects low-rate initial production to begin in April 2010. It plans first production delivery in June 2011. The U.S. Army plans to upgrade all of its 501 AH-64D Apache Longbows to “AB3” standard.
As well as the new blades, Block III introduces a host of improvements, including structural upgrades, fly-by-wire controls and T700-GE-701D engines (common with the UH-60 Black Hawk). The avionics and systems have undergone a major overhaul, based on digital open-system architecture. The integration of the joint tactical radio system and wideband communications systems makes the Block III a fully netcentric player, with the ability to control UAVs. The open nature of the system allows for further upgrades.