Staff Writer (Updated: 5/5/2016):
Development of the Ka-50 began in 1977, producing the V-80 prototype. The V-80 went airborne on July 27th, 1982 and evolved to become the V-80Sh-1 pre-production model. The Ka-50 squared off against the Mil Mi-28 "Havoc" - a conventional two-seat attack helicopter in competitive trials and was selected ahead of the Mil product in 1986. Funding delayed production for a time and renewed trials in 1994 did the Ka-50 project no better - 2000 saw the Mi-28 also selected for service. The Ka-50 became operational in 1995 and was produced through approximately 32 examples. Comparatively, the Mi-28 was introduced into service in 1996 and initially saw limited production for the Russian Air Force while Kenya entered the fray as an export customer (the Iraqi Air Force may become its next foreign operator of note).
Since both attack types have been formally selected for quantitative procurement, Russian doctrine has evolved to include both platforms in future plans. The Ka-50/Ka-52, therefore, will be focused more on policing frontier territories of the vast Russian front while the Mi-28 will be utilized in the territories west of the Ural mountain range.
Black Shark Walk-Around
From a design standpoint, the Ka-50 is very unconventional. The cockpit is situated forward in the fuselage with the engines just aft and t either side of the cockpit. Wings are fitted just under these powerplants and sport four hardpoints for a variety of ordnance options. Wingtip bulges are visible and field the aircraft's defensive anti-missile suite in the form of chaff and flare dispensers. Armor is such that all major components, systems and pilot are protected from weapon calibers ranging up to 20mm and 23mm. IR-suppressed exhausts and self-sealing fuel tanks assist the Black Shark in surviving the modern battlefield, important to consider when this type of aircraft is required to operate at low altitudes in hot zones. Engines are fitted high against the fuselage in an effort to keep the helicopter's critical powerplant system as far away from enemy ground fire as possible. The undercarriage - consisting of a tricycle-wheeled landing gear system - is fully retractable and promotes a "low to the ground" appearance when the helicopter is at rest. Construction of the Ka-50 involves more than 35% composite materials.
The most distinct feature of the Kamov Ka-50 is something of a Kamov-brand identifier - the twin contra-rotating co-axial main rotors. In this type of arrangement, the Ka-50 negates the need to balance the inherent power of the main rotor with a tail rotor unit common on most any other helicopter. In the Black Shark's case, the pair of counter-rotating main rotors (that is, each main rotor spins in the opposite direction of one another) balance the torque affect of one another out making for a stable and relatively responsive platform. It is a much noted fact that the loss of a tail rotor assembly to any modern helicopter more often than not spells certain doom for the system and crew alike. The Ka-50 makes use its main rotor assemblies to negate the possibility that the Black Shark can be lost through a direct hit on its tail section. As a result, combat survivability is greatly increased though at the expense of a more complicated set up.
In addition to combat factors, the deletion of the tail rotor assembly has a direct increase to the overall top speed, making it one of the fastest - if not THE fastest - attack helicopters in service. With power derived from the twin Klimov TV3-117VK turboshaft engines of 2,226 horsepower each, none of this output needs to be diverted to a tail rotor assembly and can instead be optimized to the centrally-located twin main rotors instead. Performance specifications include a top speed of 242 miles per hour (168 cruise speed), a range of 720 miles, a service ceiling of up to 18,000 feet and a rate-of-climb nearing 1,870 feet per minute.
Another noticeable design element present in the Ka-50 is the use of a single crewmember to command all of the available systems of the Black Shark. Though most contemporary attack helicopters utilize a dedicated pilot and gunner to split the tasks as related to combat, the Ka-50 provides the pilot a full suite of automated systems to keep the bird aloft and actively hunting. With attention given to this unique facet of the Black Shark's design, it remains to be seen whether the arrangement is actually a viable one considering the amount of instruments and systems the pilot must monitor and react to on any given sortie - particularly under intense combat conditions. In any case, the limitation of a single crewmember means the design also saves on weight that can be allocated to more vital components of the Ka-50 including armor and weapons.