early helicopter technology
early helicopter development
contributions of the autogyro
Heinrich Focke Fa 61W
Anton Flettner Kolibri
Jacques Bréguet Gyroplane
Igor Sikorsky VS-300
search and rescue helicopters
civil and commercial helicopters
Bell UH-1 "Huey"
M.A.S.H. medevac helicopters
helicopters at war
private helicopters
Sikorsky UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk
assault helicopters
Soviet and Russian helicopters
French and British helicopters

assault helicopters

The Soviet Union developed the Mi-24 Hind as its own unique assault helicopter. It can carry troops as well as weapons.  

Helicopters were first introduced to combat in World War II. But for many years they were used for only limited missions—search and rescue, medical evacuation, observation, and liaison, or communications between distant points. It was not until the mid-1950s that helicopters were actually evaluated as combat platforms that could carry weapons.

In the mid-1950s, Colonel Jay Vanderpool, a U.S. Army helicopter officer, was granted permission to assemble a ragtag collection of helicopters and equip them with weapons to assess their ability to conduct offensive operations. Vanderpool armed H-34s, H-19s, and Piasecki H-21 "Flying Bananas" with machine guns and small rockets and had his pilots attack various types of targets. Vanderpool's efforts were ridiculed by some at the time who viewed helicopters as too slow and vulnerable to ground fire. But over time, he managed to gain support for this radical new idea. Because Army leaders felt that the Air Force did not do enough to support ground troops, and because the Army could not arm its own airplanes, Army leaders soon realized that armed helicopters could be useful for their mission, although the Marine Corps played a major role in developing the concept of assault from the air.

The first armed helicopters to see combat were 15 Bell UH-1A Hueys fitted with two .30-caliber machine guns and sixteen 2.75-inch (7-centimeter) rocket launchers. The helicopters were sent to Vietnam in the fall of 1962. They accompanied troop-carrying helicopters into battle, using their weapons to prevent the enemy from shooting the troop transports. However, several were lost early in the conflict and it was obvious that while armed helicopters had value, they were still vulnerable.

Bell Aircraft soon began developing a dedicated gunship helicopter, responding to an Army requirement for an armed helicopter. Bell fitted the Huey engine, transmission, and avionics to a slender fuselage in which the pilot sat behind and above the gunner. Equipped with a machine gun, a grenade launcher, rockets, and later, anti-tank missiles, the AH-1G HueyCobra soon entered U.S. Army service and became highly effective. The U.S. Marine Corps also bought a version of this aircraft.

After initial U.S. experience in Vietnam, where helicopters were vulnerable to ground fire and did not receive the kind of air support from the Air Force that the Army wanted, Army leaders sought to develop a fast, heavily armed helicopter to provide suppressing fire in support of the troopships. In 1966, the Army issued a contract to Lockheed to produce ten prototypes of the AH-56 Cheyenne. The Cheyenne was a large weapons platform that was twice as fast as any other helicopter then in service and which could reach speeds of 253 miles per hour (407 kilometres per hour). In January 1968, the Army signed a contract for 375 Cheyennes. However, the Cheyenne fell victim to inter-service politics, technical problems, and improved Soviet anti-aircraft weapons. The Air Force opposed it, the prototype crashed, and the helicopter suffered delays and technical setbacks. Finally, the appearance of the hand-held Soviet SAM-7 Grail heat-seeking missile meant that any helicopter that did not try to hide down near the trees—which the super fast Cheyenne could not do well—would be an easy target. The Cheyenne was cancelled.

In 1972, the Army asked for proposals for a highly manoeuvrable, heavily armed battlefield helicopter. The primary requirement was defined more by the growing Soviet tank threat in Europe than by Vietnam. This helicopter needed to be able to operate at night and be highly mobile. Special sensors and excellent navigation systems were extremely important. The Army evaluated prototypes developed by Hughes Aircraft and by Bell.

It was not until 1981 that the Army awarded a contract to Hughes for developing the next generation attack helicopter, the AH-64 Apache. The first production aircraft were delivered to the Army in 1984.

The AH-64 Apache was designed primarily as a tank killer for a potential ground war in Europe against massive numbers of Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks charging into Germany. It had Hellfire anti-tank missiles and a powerful cannon. It could hover behind trees and other obstacles before popping up to fire missiles at a target that could be "illuminated" by a laser fired by another aircraft or even troops on the ground. The Apache could also carry unguided rockets. For the next several years, however, the Apache was controversial, primarily because of its complexity and cost, which far exceeded the cost of traditional helicopters due to its complicated systems.

A U.S. Apache was the first allied aircraft to open fire during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, shooting Hellfire missiles at an Iraqi radar site so allied aircraft could fly in through the hole in Iraqi air defences. The Apache soon proved to be very successful in attacking Iraqi tanks and armoured personnel carriers, even though it was fighting in desert terrain for which it had not originally been intended. In the final action of the war, AH-64s were patrolling the Euphrates Valley when they encountered elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard fleeing north. The Apaches destroyed 32 tanks and 100 vehicles over the course of an hour. The helicopter proved itself as the primary foe of the tank, initiating another technological shift in warfare.

The AH-64A Apache helicopter is a heavily armed attack helicopter used by the U.S. Army. Armed with laser-designated Hellfire missiles, 30mm cannon and Hydra 70 rockets, the Apache can direct highly mobile and effective firepower against the enemy. Its Target Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS) and Pilot Night Vision Sensor (PNVS) provide day and night laser designation of targets and infrared night vision for both the pilot and the co-pilot/gunner.

After its successful debut in the war, several other countries began expressing interest in the expensive but highly capable Apache. The United Kingdom, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Greece, and the Netherlands all purchased the Apache. An updated version, known as the Longbow Apache, has a radar mounted above its rotor, which enables it to hide behind trees while using its sensors to peer over the trees and monitor the battlefield.

The AH-1 HueyCobra (often simply called the Cobra) is also in continued production and has recently been exported to Turkey as the AH-1Z. The latest versions of the Cobra have four rotors (as opposed to the earlier two) and carry a wide assortment of weapons, including the same Hellfire missiles as the Apache. Although not as capable as the Apache, continued upgrades and a cheaper price make it attractive. It is also much less complicated and easier to maintain, and it is easier to train pilots for the Cobra.

The Soviet Union developed its own unique assault helicopter, the Mi-24 Hind. Unlike American helicopters, the Hind is not simply a weapons platform, but also can carry troops (a capability that the U.S. Army rejected when Sikorsky proposed its S-67 Black Hawk helicopter in the 1970s). The Hind was rarely used in its troop-carrying role, and its inadequate navigation systems and limited anti-tank armament have restricted its use. Hinds operated extensively in Afghanistan and were a primary target for U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. During the 1980s, the Soviet Union exported the Hind, and it is in extensive use worldwide today.

During the 1970s and 1980s, many countries did not have dedicated assault helicopters and chose to arm existing helicopters, like the Huey or the Soviet Mi-8 Hip, with anti-tank missiles or rocket launchers. These modifications had many drawbacks, and several countries have begun or accelerated their own assault helicopter programs. Several Russian aircraft were developed that are similar to the Apache. These include the Mi-28 Havoc and Ka-50 Werewolf. The Italian firm Agusta developed the A.109 Mangusta to serve Italy in the anti-tank role. In 1988, Eurocopter, a consortium of European companies, also began developing its own combat helicopter, the Tiger.

The U.S. Army is currently developing the Bell Commanche. Although technically designated a utility helicopter intended to perform scouting duties on the battlefield, it will carry extensive weaponry and be relatively stealthy by incorporating a more advanced design that reduces its radar cross section compared to previous helicopters. Its mission is to serve in a scouting and tank-hunting role, far ahead of ground troops.