‘Power is not a problem’. The words, spoken in a briefing room at Beauvechain airbase, are met with a grin by the crew of a Belgian Air Component NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH). In an hour or so, they’ll be practicing confined area landings. In a hover between 100ft tall trees, it’s comforting to know that the NH90 is Belgium’s most powerful helo so far. But while the sun shines gloriously on a perfect November day, there’s also some worries.
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Worldwide, the 218-strong NHIndustries NH90 fleet has amassed close to 70,000 flying hours since deliveries began nine or so years ago. Of those, well over 620 have been clocked up by the four Belgian NH90 TTHs, with the oldest – delivered in 2012 – responsible for 314 hours. At Beauvechain, student NH90 pilot Richard Jorissen is about to add another two hours to that, in the company of a cabin operator and instructor pilot Ralph Claussen – who’s not Belgian, but German. During the flight, the crew will land at designated spots in the woods and hilly areas near Namur. It requires a team effort, and also a sharp look out for runaway cows, as told during the briefing.
In total, there are now six qualified Belgian Air Component pilots on the NH90, with Jorissen and five more colleagues on their way. “I have six hours on the NH90 now and expect to be operational in two months”, says Jorissen. “It’s a big transition from the Agusta A-109 I flew before, especially with the addition of a cabin operator as a third crew member. Also, the automated systems on the NH90 take some time to get to know completely.”
Helping out are Ralph Claussen and another German instructor pilot. “With the help of the European Defense Agency, European nations flying the NH90 are assisting each other in training. In Germany we have been flying the NH90 for much longer, and I myself have 400 hours on type now. The Belgians are doing really, really well.” The two German instructors will likely head back to their homebase of Bückeburg in Germany by January.
At Beauvechain, the helicopters are operated by 18 Smaldeel (squadron), where they are hoping the reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in March, with Full Operational Capability (FOC) projected for 2016. The NH90s role will be to deliver a company sized force into the field, a capability the Belgian forces lacked thus far. With armed A-109s serving as escorts, the Belgian Air Component offers a believable package that is also suited for international missions.
However, not all is well. Earlier in November, news of significant military budget cuts reached all ears in Belgium. Tension is being felt at Beauchehain, too. “The NH90 seems to be safe, but there are worries in the A-109 community, despite that helicopter being vital to our concept”, says Pieter Vereycken, who starts NH90-conversion before the end of the year. “A lot is happening now in the world, but nothing is for sure with these budget cuts . We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
One thing that is certain, is that the grey coloured Belgian NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopters (NFH) based at Koksijde will be maintained at Beauvechain, and that cuts will likely effect Koksijde. The based 40 Smaldeel has already been placed under the authority of 1 Wing at Beauvechain. Two NFH versions already operate from Koksijde, with another two to follow in 2015. Belgium then will operate four green TTH and four grey NFH versions, and say good bye to its trusty, well known search-and-rescue Sea Kings.
It means extra work for the maintenance folk at Beauvechain, were an old hangar was refurbished for the NH90’s arrival. “With the TTH-version, we manage to have two available for flying most of the time. Any problems are mostly electronics or software related. Quite often, we can resolve it by just powering down the whole system and waiting for it to be reset. These difficulties will likely disappear in the future. Mechanically, they are very sturdy helicopters. A little too sturdy, sometimes. A lot of parts and screws are covered in paint, presumably to prevent rust. Because of the paint, it takes a lot of time to replace parts and repaint them.”
These minor issues are not enough to prevent the Belgian Air Component being a happy NH90 user. “We are perhaps the most intensive user of the NH90, the Belgian ministry of Defense said earlier in November, during the delivery of the final NH90 TTH at Beauvechain. Vereycken: “It’s well known that other operators are experiencing some difficulties, for example the problem with rust on Dutch helicopters. These issues are probably the result of the multi-national effort that is NH90, and of course the Belgian press inquired about our helicopters. But the truth is, we are simply quite happy with our NH90s.”
On the flightline, student pilot Jorissen and German instructor Claussen nod in unison. “We’re quite comfortable in this helicopter”, they say prior to taking off for their confined area landing training. A few moments later, a powerful green beast lifts off. Those cows better make way.
© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest (text & motion picture) / Photography by editor Dennis Spronk