The introduction of the European-made NH90 military helicopter hasn’t gone very smooth for many air forces. There has been criticism against the long delivery delays, problems with corrosion, hearing loss for pilots and operational problems in Afghanistan. But on the southern part of the globe the Royal New Zealand Air Force seems to be rather happy with their new helicopter. All eight ordered NH90s have been delivered, and just before Christmas the RNZAF’s merged its NH90s and its five fairly new AgustaWestland A109LUHs together.
During a ceremony at RNZAF Base Ohakea on North Island the Helicopter Transition Unit formally integrated into 3 Squadron on 20 December 2014, with Wing Commander Scott McKenzie as the new guy to lead the unit. Air Vice-Marshal Mike Yardley made a note of is gladness during the event: “The NH90 will now be responsible for search and rescue missions, casualty evacuation, transport for the New Zealand police, government and military, and will be there for national security requirements.”
The words of the marshal were hardly spoken or the NH90 made its first operational debut: a Austrian hiker was missing in the Tararua Forest Park on 23 December. The NH90 crew spotted him in a valley, winched him in and brought him back to the urbanised world.
New Zealand ordered eight NH90s (plus the equivalent of a ninth for spares) in 2006 for about US$ 600 million to replace the Bell UH-1H Iroquois (“Huey”) chopper. The last of 10 Hueys – also with 3 Squadron – is destined to retire in the southern Winter of 2015, when the NH90s and the military personnel that will use them reach full operational capability that will include fast roping and rappelling and more advanced SAR tactics.
The Iroquois has been in RNZAF service since 1966, but apart from getting older the limitations of the UH-1 in today’s operational environment came much to light during New Zealand’s contribution to the Australian-led multinational stability force in East Timor between 1999 and 2002.
The most southern country in the world to use the NH90, New Zealand is also the first in the world that has its full complement of ordered choppers of the type up and running. The first pair arrived in December 2011, the last at the end of October this year. The Belgian Air Component followed suit with its four “army” NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopters in November, but the final of four “navy” NH90NFHs still has to make it. Interesting detail: like in New Zealand the Belgian NH90s serve alongside A109s in the army support role, which Airheadsfly.com caught on camera during our exclusive visit of Beauvechain Airbase in November 2014.
New Zealand’s NH90 story also had its downsides. There was a delivery delay of 3 years, compensated with 1,4 billion US dollars by NHIndustries. And one of the brand new NH90s was damaged up to 9 million dollars in September 2013 after a lightning strike damaged its tail and main rotors plus parts of the fuselage while the machine was on the ground. But the delay and lightning strike that didn’t have an impact on the operational capabilities of the New Zealand armed forces as a whole, like it did in Sweden.
There the government in Stockholm quickly ordered and received 15 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks in 2010 to meet urgent needs. And while the Swedish Armed Forces are in December 2014 still struggling with nine less than operational green-painted NH90TTHs and one semi-operational grey-painted maritime NH90NFH, the New Zealand Air Force already reached 1,000 flying hours on the type in March 2014. In the same month the NH90 and UH-1H served the Central District police together in recovering 7415 cannabis plants in a law enforcement bust.
With the full complement of NH90s serving alongside A109LUHs and the gradual farewell to the UH-1H, the New Zealand Defence Force main helicopter unit at RNZAF Base Ohakea looks forward to a bright new future.
© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger