(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 2, 4-5, 10, 14-15)
By Lee Joon-seung
SACHEON, South Korea, July 31 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Friday unveiled its first homegrown helicopter, hoping it will propel the nation's budding aerospace industry and step in for an aging military fleet.
Able to push 260km per hour and meet all operational requirements suitable for the nation's craggy terrain, the first prototype of the Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH), also called the "Surion," was displayed at a ceremony in this southwestern city attended by senior government officials, including President Lee Myung-bak.
"We should use the successful development of the indigenous helicopter as a springboard to move forward and join the ranks of advanced industrialized countries in the 21st century," Lee said at the ceremony.
Helped by Europe's leading helicopter manufacturer, Eurocopter, Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. and other local companies designed the Surion, sourcing local manufacturers for 60 percent of its parts -- including the rotor blade and health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS).
HUMS is a hightech diagnostic system built to generates important information on maintenance that can greatly reduce the risk of mechanical failure of moving parts.
Officials have stressed the Surion's ability to serve in both defense and civilian roles is significant in terms of future growth potential.
"Even though it is a military helicopter, the KUH already satisfies 96 percent or 2,363 of the 2,460 international operational standards for civilian helicopters," said Lee Jae-hong, head of the machinery, aerospace and defense industry division at the Ministry of Knowledge Economy.
The project's managers said that while initial aircraft will be supplied exclusively to the military, civilian orders will be sought beginning in 2011 at the latest to ensure a better return on investment.
The government and private firms have poured a combined 1.3 trillion won (US$1 billion) into the aircraft's development since it began in 2006. South Korea has produced propeller-driven supersonic jets in the past, but the Surion makes it one of only 11 countries in the world to turn out an indigenous helicopter.
The ministry, which contributed heavily to the project, said the aircraft will help South Korea make inroads into the fiercely competitive global aerospace market.
In addition to the prototype, three other aircraft will be built to conduct various flight safety tests on the chopper, which will perform troop assault, search and rescue, tactical lift, liaison and medical evacuation operations. Full-scale production is to begin in June 2012.
South Korea's aging fleet of UH-1Hs and 500MD choppers, many of which have been in service for over 30 years, are set to be phased out. Independent sources speculate the South Korean military may require as many as 250 Surion choppers.
Seoul also aims to win 300 overseas orders for the KUH in the next 25 years, a government official said on condition of anonymity. That is roughly 30 percent of the projected global demand for Surion-type choppers, which are larger than the UH-1 Iroquois but smaller than the UH-60 Black Hawks.
The Surion is powered the U.S.-made T-700 turboshaft engine, is 15 meters long, 4.5 meters high and 2 meters wide and has a maximum take off weight of 8.7 tons and is designed to fly a fully equipped squad of troops or an equal size payload for two hours. It can climb 152m per minute, maintain a stable hover at 3,000m and is equipped with the latest global positioning and inertial navigation systems vital for all-weather flight operations.
The helicopter, in addition, has a radar warning receiver, infrared countermeasure flares and other defensive systems that can protect the crew in a hostile environment.
Related to the KUH development, the Defense Ministry said earlier in the week it may scrap a plan to buy used AH-64 Apache helicopters from the United States because of feasibility issues. With the move, South Korea is expected to build an indigenous fleet of attack helicopters to replace its AH-1 Cobra fleet in the coming years.
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