Forty years old the Westland Sea King Mk 48 flown by the Belgian Air Component of its armed forces is still very much ruling the waves when it comes down to search and rescue operations.
The already delivered four new NH90 helicopters are not managing well, meaning that the dinosaur Sea Kings are somewhat strange still the most reliable rotary wing for whoever gets lost at sea in front of the Belgian coast – where one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world passes through the English Channel and North Sea.
The Ministry of Defence in Brussels confirmed it has a tremendous amount of difficulties in providing the nation with an adequate air rescue at sea. The Grey Cayman, as the Belgians have nicknamed their new navy NH90s, has too many issues during its operations – including a radar that sometimes doesn’t work.
Neighbours help out
The Sea Kings – suffering from their age – already have to soldier on till 2019, four years later than planned. NHIndustries/Airbus needs at least one and a half years more to update and repair all four NH90s delivered for navy tasks – taking about 6 months per aircraft at a time. According to a ministry spokesperson Belgium will ask its European neighbours – the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom – to help out and back up the Sea King. It may still rule the waves, but increased maintenance and lack of spare parts will likely put the Sea King on the ground at times as well, meaning there will be no single dedicated SAR helicopter on Belgian soil available for helping out stranded sea man, unfortunate swimmers and downed pilots.
Envisaging the coming new kid on the block, Belgium already retired its first Sea King (RS-01) on almost a decade ago, in the 33rd year of its service life. It left the 40 Squadron at homebase Koksijde on 17 December 2008 and has been a crown jewel of the Royal Museum of Army and War History of the nation ever since. Some black pages in its operational history: the crew had to ditch it into the North Sea in April 1981 due to engine problems and in 2005 it was suffering from severe hydraulic problems.
RS-01 was one of five Sea Kings delivered to the Belgian Air Component, sporting a for European waters rather rare ochre yellow and green camo scheme as the machines were originally built by British Westland for the Egyptian armed forces, but that delivery was cancelled in 1975. The Belgian Armed Forces started operations with the Sea King on 1 April 1976. During the years modernisations were implemented to keep the aircraft aloft. They included a protection plate for the engine intake, a FLIR camera and a new all-weather radar.
Sixth Sea King
The second Sea King (RS-03) was taken out of service in August 2013, leaving only three machines available. However, even with a sixth Sea King bought in the UK to provide the remaining machines with spare parts, Brussels has said it will be very very complicated to keep the SAR going without the support if its NATO partner nations.
Problems with the NH90 are also bad news for the effectiveness of the Belgian Navy’s frigates. The Navy NH90s were supposed to increase their fighting capabilities, a task never done by the Sea Kings, but the MoD now says the first NH90s are now likely to operate from the combat vessels in 2025 at the earliest.
For those who love the Sea King in its Belgian special colour scheme, there is at least another year or two left to enjoy them above North Sea waves and in European skies.
Ok, so maybe today doesn’t offer the most challenging weather for deck landings in an NH90 helicopter. But when you’re in that same NH90 and you’re facing a wind and rain swept deck in high seas, it will get you adrenaline running and you’ll be thankful for every last bit of training you’ve had. And so, the Defense Helicopter Command (DHC) of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) regularly heads out to sea for deck landings aboard Dutch navy vessels. Even on a perfectly calm day such as this one.
Location: the North Sea, aboard the Royal Netherlands Navy’s 108 meter long Ocean-going Patrol Vessel (OPV) Zr. Ms. Groningen. Job at hand: landing an eleven tonnes NH90 helicopter on the 16 by 30 meter landing deck over the stern of the ship. Inbound for doing exactly that is Neptune 11, an NH90 from De Kooy Air Station near Den Helder, which is also the Royal Netherlands Navy’s home port.
As Neptune 11 approaches the ship, it becomes clear that these deck landings provide training to more than just the helicopter crew. It’s the flight deck crew who also are being put to work to gain experience in getting the helicopter down on the deck safely, which never is a routine task given ever changing winds and waves.
Suddenly, things are not so calm anymore. The flight deck becomes a flurry of noise, wind and rotor blades going around a high speed. The one braving the elements in particular is the flight deck officer, who has to withstand the gale-force downwash from the NH90’s main rotor. Using forceful hand signals and clear commands over the radio, the flight deck officer direct Neptune towards the desired landing spot.
Taking the flight deck officer’s directions and using other visual clues, the NH90 pilot seemingly without too much effort lands his helicopter aboard Zr. Ms Groningen and is immediately secured in place with chains. The NH90 is a hugely automated helo, but a landing like this mostly depends on pilot skills and smooth interaction between the helo’s crew and the folks on the flight deck.
The helo is not here to stay, however. Shortly after landing and after another bit of hand signalling, the NH90 takes off while creating more hurricane-force winds for the deck crew to battle with. Throughout the rest of the day, this scene will be repeated many times as the cycle of approaching, landing and taking off continues.
The NH90 has been in Dutch service for seven years now, first in what was called a Meaningful Operational Capability since upon delivery not all helicopter were fully equipped for all task. In their Final Radar Configuration, the helicopters are also capable of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The first ASW-qualified Dutch crew recently took part in large scale exercise Joint Warrior. in which the crew successfully managed to find and track a Norwegian submarine.
And yes, during an exercise in the waters around Scotland, you are certainly glad that you’ve working on deck landings, adds NH90 pilot Tim. “As soon as you see the deck rolling, and you see the waves and the wind, that will certainly get your adrenaline up. You’ll be glad to know that you are properly trained and perfectly capable of landing that eleven tonnes helicopter on that ship.”
Bigger and better airpower. That’s what Frisian Flag 2017 is all about, according to Denny Traas, commander of Leeuwarden airbase in the Netherlands and therefore host of this multinational military flying exercise. And if one thing becomes crystal clear on this early Spring-day in leeuwarden, it’s that learning how to fly alongside each other and getting to know each other, is the path towards ‘bigger and better’.
Frisian Flag 2017 takes in the strategic perspective of continued conflicts and increasing threats. “One of those threats is the posture of Russia”, says Traas. “And of course we see the conflict and the use of coalition airpower over Syria and Iraq. The need for coalition airpower will not change in the forseeable future, and that includes coalitions with non-NATO members. It’s a script that we’ll be using for quite a while.”
In many cases, these coalitions while have to form quickly and operate effectively. Resources however, are greatly reduced while on the other hand, the pressure is on. Collateral damage or other costly mistakes are of course heavily frowned upon in Western societies. Coalition airpower requires preparation and aircrews that know how to fly together in packages of up to dozens of fighter jets. It requires understanding.
Do you see me?
That’s what exactly shows when standing next to Leeuwarden’s runway as 44 jets take off. Prior to each take off and from under the dark visors of their flying helmets, pilots clearly seek mutual understanding by looking directly at each other. ‘Do you see me, everything ok, ready to go?’ After a nod or a thumbs up, the air each time fills with the sound of jet engines at ‘maximum noise’ setting.
After take off, all participants head to a temporary training area over the North Sea, where a different scenario is played out each time. Dynamic ground targets are set up in northern Germany for the bombers to strike, while ‘enemy’ air defenses in shape of SA-6 and Patriot ground-to-air missile systems await them.
Leeuwarden airbase for 20 years has been home to Frisian Flag, one of the largests exercises of its kind in Europe. For the hometeam – the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) – this year’s exercise is another change to polish up skills. After decades of operations over Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – where air-to-ground was the skill most usable – extra attention is now paid to air-to-air engagements. Recent exercises in the US where also aimed at making RNLAF F-16 pilot full ‘warriors’ again in all aspects of airpower.
Other players during Frisian Flag 2017 are US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles, Royal Air Force Tornados, Portuguese and Belgian F-16s, plus French Mirage 2000Ds and German Eurofighters. The latter make their debut in the air-to ground role during the exercise. Various tanker aircraft and a NATO E-3 AWACS support Frisian Flag.
Future editions of Frisian Flag may well see participation of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, plus interaction between current 4th generation fighter jets and 5th generation fighters suchs as the F-35. However, according to base commander Traas, the latter will probably sooner be US or UK F-35s instead of RNLAF jets. “In 2019 we’ll start receiving our own F-35s and then first work up to Initial Operational Capability in 2021. That could mean we will take break in organising Frisian Flag in 2020 and 2021.”
In 2018 and 2019 however, Frisian Flag is likely to be ‘on’. And with participation of other coalition partners and perhaps even the F-35 Lightning II, it will definitely be ‘bigger and better’.
He was the first Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II in November 2015. Since then, he flew the jet for 170 hours, all of those at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he now serves as an instructor pilot. Right now, he and his Royal Norwegian Air Force colleagues begin preparations to ferry three F-35s to Norway later this year. It will be the first outing for the jet in the cold Nordic region. So, plenty of reasons for a chat with Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche, who says fighting an F-16 in an F-35 is an ‘uneven fight’ – in favor of the new jet.
AHF: Hi! Can you describe your previous flight experience for us? Hanche: “Most of my previous flight experience was in the F-16, which I flew for more than 2200 hours. I am a graduate from the a US Navy Test Pilot School In Patuxent River. After having flown the F-35 for 170 hours, I can now say I am starting to feel “at home” in the airplane. Combined, the number of flight hours by Norwegian F-35 pilots now stands at 800 hours.”
AHF: So you guys will bring the F-35 to Norway later this year. How are you preparing for the ferry flight and subsequent operations in Norway? Hanche: “We are on track, in terms of both educating technicians and pilots and preparing for the first aircraft arrival. The Norwegian Air Force prepares to bring its first three F-35s to Norwegian soil on November 2017. As usual, we will buy tanker support for the transit leg across the Atlantic.”
AHF: Once in Norway, what does the plan look like? Hanche: “Once in Norway, we will follow a crawl-walk-run approach as we start to familiarize ourselves with the F-35A in the “high North”, in adverse weather conditions. No one will have operated F-35s under quite the same circumstances at that point in time. Our only option therefore is to take it slow, and gradually increase the complexity of our training and testing.
The Norwegian Operational Testing (OT) will not focus on testing which has already been done in the US by the Joint Operational Test Team. Instead, we will focus on what’s unique for the Norwegian Armed Forces. That includes operating from icy runways and using the drag chute. That system is a unique factor: our F-35s will be fitted with a drag chute, which is designed to help slow the airplane during an aborted takeoff, or during landings on slippery runways.
Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is planned for 2019, which means that the time beforehand will be used both to train air- and ground-crew, and to support operational testing.”
AHF: In what way will the Norwegian public be introduced to the F-35? Hanche: “There will be a reception ceremony at Ørland Main Air Station in south-central Norway, near Trondheim, in November. The planning is however still in the initial phase so we will release more details later.”
AHF: In what way is the F-35’s Autonomous Logisitics Information System (ALIS) be able to support operations in Norway? ALIS is plagued by development delays. Hanche: “Some call ALIS the heart of the F 35, while others call it the brain of the F 35. ALIS is an information technology infrastructure that captures and analyzes aircraft condition data from the F-35, supporting fleet operations, maintenance, fault-prediction and supply chain management. ALIS will be delivered in time for the first aircraft arrival.”
AHF: What kind of weapon’s capability will the Norwegian F35s have?
Hanche: “At the time of IOC, the Norwegian F-35As will be equipped with the 25 mm cannon and the 25 mm APEX round, the AIM-9X block II, the AIM-120C7, GBU-12, GBU-31 and GBU-39. A little down the road, our F-35s will also carry several other air-to-air and air-to-ground stores, including the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The JSM is in its final development phase, and our aim is to have the missile integrated on the F-35 and ready for service with the Norwegian Armed Forces by 2025.”
AHF: In the future, what will training look like for a Norwegian F-35 pilot, starting with initial training? Hanche: “In the future, Norwegian F-35 training will be very similar to what we are currently doing with the F-16. We will send our young cadets through an initial screening program back home, in order to find out if they are able to absorb the training they will receive once in the USA. Following that, and an initial session at the Norwegian Air Force Academy for basic officer’s training, our students will complete basic training on the T-6 Texan II and the T-38 Talon at Sheppard Air Force Base. Following that, our students will be sent to Luke for a longer and more involved basic course.”
AHF: What can you tell us about the syllabus for Norwegian F-35 pilots?
Hanche: “The syllabus at Luke is tailored to the individual student but is now generally a transition syllabus for pilots coming from different airframes. This syllabus is shortened compared to the basic course syllabus which is designed to accommodate a young and inexperienced pilot, straight from undergraduate pilot training.
In general, the syllabus involves classroom academics, self-study, simulator practice and lastly flying the airplane. The students go through many weeks of ground training and simulator practice before it is time to strap into the jet. The initial training focuses on the basics: How to start up, take off and land. There is also significant emphasis on emergency procedures, in order to prepare the student for a myriad of “what if”-scenarios.
After learning the basics of how to operate the airplane in a pure administrative setting, the syllabus rapidly moves on with tactical employment. We start simple, and gradually build up in intensity and complexity.”
AHF: In what way does training in Luke prepare pilots for the Norwegian theater? What adaptations are needed? Hanche: “The basic course at Luke will prepare our Norwegian students for the role as a wingman – a pilot who is qualified to fly the entire width of the tactical spectrum in the F-35. However, we will have to add on some aspects when we get our young pilots back home to Norway. One perspective is that the perpetual summer conditions found here in Arizona do not lay the foundation for solid instrument flying procedures. Therefore, we will put significant emphasis on brushing up this basic skill, combined with flying in adverse weather conditions. We do not foresee a checkout requirement for the drag chute, but it still has to be done. Lastly, we will focus on training our young pilots on more specific procedures, like executing NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) missions.”
AHF: Luke is an international F-35 training school. What is the interaction between various nations like? Do Norwegian pilots fly with Australians colleagues for example? Hanche: “The partnership at Luke is very valuable for a small nation like Norway. We train and fly together here, using the same standards and tactics. We mix and match with aircrew and airplanes, so that one day you might find a four-ship of F-35As composed of a Norwegian flight-lead in an Italian F-35, a US wingman in a Norwegian F-35, an Italian element lead in a US F-35 and an Australian pilot in another Norwegian jet. The interaction across nationality is important for several reasons. First of all we build trust in each other, so that when we one day meet in a coalition setting, we know that we can work well together. Another perspective is that the standardization in how we do business makes it not only realistic, but easy to integrate a future coalition fleet of F-35s. Another perspective comes from the fact that the instructor cadre at Luke right now is composed of pilots with very different backgrounds. We have pilots here who flew everything from F-15Cs, F-15Es, A-10s, AMXs, F-22, Tornado, Eurofighter, F-18 and theF-16. Therefore, there’s a lot of varied and good knowledge gathered here to tap into, and it makes for an interesting and good learning environment.”
AHF: Is any testing being done by Norwegian pilots right now?
Hanche: “There is no dedicated operational testing going on at Luke. However, lessons are learned here at Luke from time to time, which might benefit the entire F-35 community. All the partner nations work closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin, in order correct any deficiencies – deficiencies that are inevitable given such an advanced airplane.”
AHF: What has been your most memorable F-35 experience so far? Hanche: “It is difficult to pick out one specific situation. However, the first flight in the F-35A was an obvious highlight. Several things immediately struck me on that first flight. For one how well the F-35A handles, both on the ground and in the air. It is a well-behaved airplane. Another early impression was how powerful the F-35A is. The Lightning has an impressive acceleration and rate of climb, and the airspeed can easily “run away” from you if you do not pay attention. Another more specific highlight would be the first time I fought F-16s. It was impressive to see just how uneven that fight is, in favor of the F-35.”
AHF: The Norwegians have trusted the F-16 with defending their country for close to four decades. What will happen to these F-16s? Hanche: “As we receive the first Norwegian F-35, we will gradually phase out the aging F-16 by 2021. It has not been decided yet what then will happen to them.”
Many thanks to Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche and Norwegian MoD for making this possible.
The pending US Air Force competition for a light-weight ground-attack aircraft has been widely publicized. The US is expected to formally announce the OA-X competition this summer. The winner of this competition could very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Or could it?
Yes, the famed and feared Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt will continue to cause hazards to forces opposing the US for a few more years. However, unsure about exactly how many more years and if the Lockheed Martin F-35 will be able to fill the Thunderbolt’s shoes when it finally leaves, the US Air Force is looking at its ground attack capabilities. And the conclusion is that a small and flexible aircraft is needed.
That aircraft may very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. This Brazilian turboprop was designed in Brazil but is currenty also license-built in the US by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). As part of a contract awarded in February 2013, these aircraft are adding a ground attack capability to the Afghan Air Force. Pilots from Afghanistan learn to fly the A-29 with the US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Given this experience, the A-29 is likely candidate to enter in the OA-X competition. But ideal enough to actually win? The US-designed and produced Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine may fit the bill just as well. And how about an armed Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet?
Plus, let’s not forget there’s another competition running right now, and it’s called T-X. The candidates in that competition may also offer the flexibility the US is looking for. An armed version over Lockheed Martin’s and Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 trainer already exists, and its called FA-50. Meanwhile, Leonardo in Italy is already busy developing the M-346FT Fighter Trainer, an armed version of the M-346 Master.
Obviously, the winner of OA-X competition won’t be announced for some years. But it’s just as obvious that upon closer inspection, there are a lot more likely candidates than just the A-29.