The Bell OH-58 Kiowa was perhaps less well known than its U.S. Army contemporaries – the AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Black Hawk, or CH-47 Chinook – but the utilitarian Kiowa served reliably with the U.S. for nearly fifty years before being retired in 2014. The Kiowa remains in service with various countries around the world, including Austria, Canada, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia.
In 1960, the U.S. Navy requested (on behalf of the Army) that 25 helicopter manufacturers submit proposals for the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH). Ultimately, 12 manufacturers entered the contest. Bell Helicopters submitted the YOH-4A, which came to be known as the Ugly Duckling. Aside from aesthetic problems, the YOH-4A lacked adequate cargo space. Bell lost the contract bid to Hughes and its OH-6 Cayuse. Undeterred, Bell went about modifying its YOH-4A platform, starting with a sleeker, prettier, roomier fuselage. The result, which had more cargo space – and more style – was named the Model 206A.
Bell Gets Another Opportunity
In 1967, the LOH competition was reopened as Hughes, winners of the initial competition, could not meet the Army’s production requirements. Bell submitted its more attractive Model 206A, underbid Hughes, and won the contract. The Model 206A was redesignated the OH-58A, and in accordance with Army naming conventions, given the name of a Native American tribe: the Kiowa.
The Army received the first Kiowa in May 1969. By the end of the summer, Kiowas were entering the Vietnam War. By the end of the conflict, 45 Kiowas would be lost to combat or accident. The first such loss occurred in March 1970, when Warrant Officer Ralph Quick, Jr., flying with Lt. Col. Joseph Benoski, Jr. onboard, was shot down while conducting a battle damage assessment.
By Desert Storm, the Kiowa had evolved into the D-variant. The OH-58D is distinct for its Mast Mounted Sight (MMS). The MMS, which resembled a large basketball, was mounted above the helicopter’s single rotor. The MMS contained a television system (TVS), a thermal imaging system (TIS), and a laser rangefinder/designator (LRF/D) – all of which aided the Kiowa with target acquisition and adverse weather flying.
Desert Storm saw 115 Kiowas in participation, logging 9,000 flight hours, and achieving a 92 percent mission-capable rate. Additionally, the Kiowa earned the distinction as the easiest helicopter to maintain, with the lowest ratio of maintenance hours to flight hours of any combat helicopter in theater.
The Kiowa Makes a Mark in the War on Drugs
The Kiowa has another dubious distinction. In 1989, Congress mandated that the Army National Guard would participate in the War on Drugs. Accordingly, in 1992, the National Guard created the Reconnaissance and Aerial Interdiction Detachments (RAID), which had aviation units in 31 states. In those aviation units were 76 OH-58A Kiowas, modified for recon and interdiction missions against U.S. citizens. The Kiowa flew in over 1,200 aerial counterdrug missions on U.S. soil. RAID lives on today, with a mission dedicated to counterterrorism, but the venerable Kiowa has since been retired.
The Army attempted to retire the Kiowa multiple times, starting in the early aughts with the RAH-66 Comanche. Of course, the Comanche was canceled before entering production, so the Kiowa continued service. A decade later, the Army persisted in retiring the Kiowa – in an effort to reduce the types of helicopters in service (and reduce costs) – finally succeeding in 2014.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.