As a small observation, utility and direct fire support helicopter, the Bell OH-58 Kiowa may not be as well-known as the UH-60 Blackhawk or AH-64 Apache, but the Kiowa was the U.S. Army’s workhorse for nearly fifty years. It was only in last July that the Kiowa made its final flight with the U.S. military.
On July 9, 2020, eight pilots with the 1st Battalion, Aviation Regiment, flew OH-58C Kiowa helicopters in a double “V” formation over the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk for the aircrafts’ final flight at JRTC and Fort Polk. Replaced by the UH-72 Lakota, it marked the end of the line for the OH-58, which first entered service in May 1969. The helicopters had proved invaluable to the U.S. Army when it was first introduced as an armed observation and reconnaissance aircraft during the war in Vietnam.
The family of single-engine, single-rotor military choppers, which had been manufactured by Bell Helicopter for the U.S. Army, was based on its Model 206A JetRanger. The OH-58 Kiowa had seen continuous service until 2017, and had also been exported to Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Some 2,200 of the Kiowas were built, and around 375 had been kept in service and were used in hotspots in Haiti and Somalia during the 1990s as well as in Operation Desert Storm.
In 2003, there were 120 Kiowas deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and twenty-nine were lost during the conflict. The Army’s fleet of OH-58s achieved a total of 820,000 combat hours by the end of 2013.
When it was initially introduced in the Vietnam War, the OH-58A was armed with either an M134 Minigun or M129 40mm automatic grenade launcher, and the aircraft had a range of about 300 miles.
The helicopter was upgraded in the 1980s under the “Army Helicopter Improvement Program,” and the OH-58D featured an upgraded digital cockpit that included Multi-Function Displays for both cockpit positions and was the first U.S. Army helicopter to feature an “all glass cockpit.” The OH-58D “Kiowa Warrior” was also equipped with a variety of more powerful armament, which included AGM-114 “Hellfire” guided anti-tank missiles, Hydra 70 series high-explosive unguided rockets, 12.7mm heavy caliber machine guns.
In 2005, it was announced that Bell Helicopter was awarded a contract to develop the next-generation armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) for the Army, and that essentially marked the end for the Kiowa program. However, according to a report from Business Insider in late 2019, some of the Kiowas that the Army began to retire in 2013 were mothballed at the U.S. military’s aviation “boneyard” in Arizona. Those helicopters were subsequently sold to Greece under a foreign military sales program and will return to the air. So, while the days serving the U.S. Army may have come to an end, the workhorse chopper will continue to fly high for years to come.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.