Revolutionary attack helicopter Ka-50, the Black Shark.
Revolutionary attack helicopter Ka-50, the Black Shark.
In 1976, the Kamov Design Bureau, under the leadership of the Soviet designer Sergei Mikheev started the development of the Ka-50 attack helicopter. In terms of the degree and courage of the design decisions laid down in it, it became a truly unique machine, which is why its fate was unsuccessful: it was accepted into service, but it is not in the army. Despite the fact that the helicopter managed to fight in the second Chechen campaign, and received positive feedback from the pilots, its production was discontinued in 2009: a total of 17 helicopters, including pre-production prototypes, were produced. Why did this happen?
The fact is that the designers wanted to make the helicopter so perfect that they simply did not calculate the capabilities of the industry and the development of electronics at that time. The Ka-50 was originally designed as a single-seat attack helicopter, although all over the world everyone refused this scheme, including the Americans. The advantages of a single-seat scheme include: the smaller mass of the helicopter, caused, among other things, by the smaller use of armor, which has to defend only one, not two pilots. The cost of pilots training was halved, and in the event of a loss of the helicopter and the crew, one pilot died, not two.
At the same time, an inevitable problem arose – how could one pilot simultaneously pilot a helicopter and use an armament complex? The pilot has only two arms and one head, and in a battle, he would have to be both a pilot and a weapons operator, and keep in touch with the ground units and do much more that other crew members usually do in other attack helicopters. The latest navigation target acquisition system and the flight automation and tactical information exchange system were called upon to solve this problem. In addition, it was planned that the Ka-50s would get the targets information from Ka-29 reconnaissance and targeting helicopters. Subsequently, this is how both helicopters operated in Chechnya. Roughly speaking, the Ka-50 should, using its outstanding speed and maneuverability, receive a “tip-off” from the Ka-29, quickly reach the target, strike and immediately leave the dangerous area, until the enemy came to his senses and activated air defense systems.
In 1980, Kamov and Mil Design Bureaus simultaneously began developing attack helicopters according to the specifications of the military and as a result created two completely different machines. Moreover, in 1986, the Ka-50 during the tests outrated the Mi-28 in the eyes of the military, however, the Mil machine went into the troops, and the Ka-50 had to survive the transformation into a practically new Ka-52 helicopter. But, again, at first it was the Ka-50 that was declared the winner of the competition.
The total take-off mass of the Black Shark reached 10.8 tons, the load weight was 2.8 tons, the maximum speed was 350 km/h, but with a gentle dive, the Ka-50 could accelerate to 390 km/h, which made it the fastest serial helicopter in the world. The use of the coaxial scheme provided him with outstanding maneuverability: he could make a “dead loop” without acceleration and fly backwards at a speed of 90 km/h. And during one sortie in Chechnya, a helicopter, moving away from a collision with an obstacle, demonstrated a truly airplane climb rate of 30 m/s.
For the first time in the world, a helicopter was equipped with an ejection seat: in the event of an emergency, the rotor blades were fired off, and the pilot could eject at speeds of up to 400 km/h at any height. The pilot was protected by a two-layer aluminum-steel armour withstanding the impact of armour-piercing bullets of 12.7 mm caliber, and all vital helicopter components were also armoured. To reduce thermal visibility, in separate engine nacelleson the sides of the fuselage were installed two gas turbine engines TV3−117K with a total capacity of 4400 hp equipped with special screen-exhaust devices. With suspended tanks, the helicopter could fly 1,100 kilometers with the dynamic ceiling at 5,500 meters.
The disadvantages of the Ka-52 could be attributed to the ‘overlap’ of the rotors during certain maneuvers, which caused two pre-production helicopters to crash. During operation, the pilots were not recommended to go to critical flight modes, although, after fixing the problems, the overlap of the screws was no longer observed. The armament of the Ka-50 consisted of a 30-mm gun, unguided missiles, aerial bombs, ATGMs and air-to-air missiles.
Despite all the revolution, at a certain stage, the Ka-50 ceased to satisfy the military precisely because of its … revolution! The use of the Ka-29 reconnaissance and targeting helicopter was declared uncomfortable and reducing the tactical capabilities of the Ka-50, whose pilot, despite the abundance of all kinds of auxiliary systems, still had to carry out several tasks at once all by himself. Therefore, it was decided to supplement the crew with an operator, which required the conversion of a helicopter from a single to a two-seater. So, the Ka-52 was born, which is unified with the Ka-50 in a number of units and assemblies. Так появился на свет Ка-52, который по множеству узлов и агрегатов унифицирован с Ка-50.
It was the Ka-52 that largely met the requirements of the military, and it was decided to withdraw the Ka-50 from service after running out of resources. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that single attack helicopters do not have the right to life. They definitely have and there is no doubt that such helicopters will appear soon. As artificial intelligence develops, a co-pilot will be replaced with a “virtual” one, and soon the helicopters themselves will become drones.
The Ka-50 was far ahead of its time: in the years 80–90 of the last century, the development of electronics and autonomous systems did not make it possible to create a kind of virtual “assistant” to a pilot, who had to solve most of the tasks independently: to control a helicopter and use weapons along the way performing many secondary functions. Be that as it may, the Ka-50 entered the history of Russian and world helicopter engineering as a revolutionary machine, which used a number of innovative developments that were far ahead of their time.
By Alexander Plekhanov