The Turkish Aerospace Industries / AgustaWestland T-129 ATAK might be the unexpected outsider to win the Malaysian Army deal for six attack helicopters. While many experts bet on the AH-64D Apache, the Bell AH-1Z Viper or the Airbus Helicopters EC665 Tigre to make it to the Asian country, the T-129 might just be what Kuala Lumpur seeks to supplement its AgustaWestland AW109s it is currently arming.
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“The armed forces are to acquire six attack helicopters to reinforce operations in Esszone, as soon as possible,” Deputy Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Bakri announced on 19 December 2014. The Esszone is the Eastern Sabah Safety Zone (Esszone): an area covering the districts of Kudat, Kota Marudu, Pitas, Beluran, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu, Kunak, Semporna and Tawau. It is located on the island of Kalimantan that Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei. Armed rebel groups from the Sulu Archipelago invaded the eastern part of it in March 2013.
As an intermediate solution to beef up its fighting capabilities Malaysia’s Army Air Corps are mounting 10 newly purchased General Electric M134D Hybrid Miniguns on its ten AgustaWestland AW109s. By not ordering a 11th of these Gatling-type guns, the faith of the 11th AW109LOH the Army received might have been sealed. This chopper was badly damaged during a crash on 30 January 2014. The AW109s currently make up the complete air fleet of the army.
Officially the AW109s are based at Kluang, but armed with the Miniguns some are or will operate out of Labuan Airbase at Sabah. The Royal Malaysian Air Force’s 15 Squadron “Panther” – flying Hawk Mk108 and Mk208s Hawk Mk208 – has already relocated from Butterworth Airbase to Labuan on 7 November. Moreover the Defence Ministry is aiming at basing its top F/A-18s and Su-30MKMs at Labuan as well, likely in smaller rotating detachments of 4 to 8 aircraft at a time. Labuan itself already was home to 5 Squadron flying the Agusta S61A-4 Nuri (licensed version of the Westland Sea King) helicopter and 14 Squadron with the C-130H30 Hercules tactical airlifter.
Whether or not Malaysia will choose the T-129 will very much depends on the costs the manufacturer wishes to put on the invoice. With the current almost all European chopper fleet in the Malaysian armed forces, the Airbus Tigre initially seems to have the best cards on the table. But we at Airheadsfly.com won’t be surprised if Kuala Lumpur decides in favour of probably the perfect outsider in this bid: the Italian designed but Turkish redefined TAI T-129 ATAK.
‘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.
UPDATED 21 OCTOBER 2014 | Swedish naval, land and air forces scrambled on Friday evening 17 October 2014 for a sudden red alert. Unfriendly underwater activity was spotted in the vast Stockholm archipelago. On Tuesday 21 October the operation is still ongoing and might take at least another week. Among the forces deployed are several Agusta A109 (HKP 15) anti-submarine helicopters. Together with other units they search for Russian military activity just a few tens of miles of the centre the Swedish capital.
According to sources within the Swedish defence ministry an object visually spotted in the water triggered the alarm bells. Some sources say a Russian military transmitter in use by Russian special underwater forces was picked up from the water by a Swedish naval unit. During a press conference on Sunday evening 19 October Swedish Read-Admiral Anders Grenstad said that visual observation were made with a moving submersible object as well; on three different moments: Friday in Kanholmsfjärden and Nämndöfjärden and Sunday in the Jungfrufjärden. A fjärd is a bay on the eastern (Swedish) part of Scandinavia, a fjord a bay on the western (Norwegian) part. On Monday 20 October the search moved further south to Danziger Gatt, closer to the ferry harbour of Nynäshamn. The area includes the naval base of Muskö.
Two more sightings of possibly the same underwater object were made on Monday: near Ingarö / Fågelbrolandet and in the area around Nåttarö further south. Air support on Tuesday came from a Swedish Coast Guard (Kustbevakningen) Bombardier Dash 8 Q-300 KBV 501 that was seen overflying the search area. All non-military/non-Coast Guard vessels are ordered to keep at least a 1000 metres (3,280 feet) distance from any military vessel in the area. Armed Swedish marines reportedly search island by island in some areas.
The Swedish Ministry of Defence briefly ordered no-go zone for ships, but also installed a more permanent no-fly zone up to 4,000 feet (1,300 m) covering an area of 40 by 60 km (30 – 50 miles) near Nynäshamn and about 10 by 20 km (8 to 16 miles) near Sandhamn further north. Only police, rescue armed forces aircraft are allowed in those areas, officially to keep the HKP 15 chopper activities in the area safe. The no-fly zone does not have any negative impact on the regular passenger traffic to/from Stockholm-Bromma and Stockholm-Arlanda. Airheadsfly.com has at this time no information if Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripen planes are airborne to enforce the no-fly zone if necessary.
Despite the fact that the HKP 15s can deploy hydrophones and can be equipped with torpedos Sweden seem to miss their TV star of the 1980s and 1990s when Boeing-Vertol CH-46 Sea Knights were the primary asset to find enemy subs. It even earned them the nickname “submarine hunter” within the Swedish Armed Forces. But the choppers – serving under designation HKP 4 – were decommissioned in 2009.
Experts believe it could be a submersible boat designed to bring special forces with diving gear on land, like a Triton type of diving boat known to be in use with the Russians. According to information published by defence expert Mikael Holmström of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet – normally very well and reliably informed – the Swedish defence radio intelligence agency FRA observed contact between a Russian transmitter in Kanholmsfjärden, just of the coast of mainland Sweden about 25 miles (30 km) from Stockholm’s city centre, and a military radio (relay) station in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
But during the Sunday evening press conference Rear-Admiral Grenstadt did not give any such information. Despite the fact that several armed units have been dispatched and helicopters have been seen circling overhead the admiral calls the current military operation one of an “intelligence” kind, to see where the “likely foreign underwater activity” took place or is now. The high-ranking officers denies it is a “submarine hunt” and says no distress signals were received. But admiral Grenstad also says it could turn into a submarine hunt, but that would mean “resources like helicopters” – which actually have been seen and photographed by several professional and amateur photographers during the last few days. In short: a rather confusing and contradicting series of statements.
Very reliable source
Swedish Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist, just on the job for less than two weeks, initially only confirmed that military got reports from “a very reliable source” that one or more man made objects were observed underneath the surface of the waters off the Stockholm coast. Mr. Hultqvist did not say what those objects were or which country might have been behind it, but it is a standard phrasing for a submarine.
Eye-witnesses report seeing several defence helicopters flying over an area, as well as at least a dozen boats and vessels; including the stealth corvette K31 Visby, corvette K11 Stockholm, corvette K24 Sundsvall, mine-counter vessel M76 Ven, mine-counter vessel M74 Kullen, support vessel A264 Trössö, several machine gun armed fast combat boats (Stridsbåt 90) and support/transport vessel HMS Loke. Official sources say about 200 troops and navy crew searched the entire first night, supported by several units on the mainland. Finding a possible underwater object, submarine or other, is difficult in the area of operations as the place is littered with small islands and rock chunks.
During the whole of Saturday and Sunday nothing had been found. Sunday morning the search area was expanded, moved somewhat south and started to focus on the possibility that a small number Russian special forces might be somewhere on the many islands in the Stockholm archipelago. Russia denies any military operation is going on and says that none of its military boats is in trouble.
Mysterious oil tanker
Swedish government officials did confirm they are aware that a large Russian oil tanker with official destination the waters between Norway and Denmark is present just outside territorial waters in the Baltic. What this NS Concord is doing near Sweden since Wednesday is unknown, but one theory is that the vessel has been adapted to support Russian submarine activities, probably small subs. It movements are what strange, as it has been seen on maritime radar moving in irrational north-south patterns and turning its transponder on and off every once in a while. However, owner SCF Novoship sent out a press release on 20 October saying the vessel just waits between 14 and 25 nautical mile from the Swedish territorial waters waiting for its planned docking in the Russian harbour of Primorsk, from where it will transport oil to the United States.
Russian research vessel
Another bit of speculation is what the mission is of the Russian underwater research vessel Professor Logachev that left the port of St. Petersburg and headed into the Baltic Sea. The ship was last seen on public maritime radar being shadowed by the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate F805 Evertsen, of which is known it has a NH90 helicopter on board. According to the Dutch Ministry of Defence nothing extraordinary is happening, while the frigate is returning home together with offshore patrol vessel P841 Zeeland and supply vessel A836 Amsterdam from a port visit to Tallinn in Estonia.
The Swedish Navy just practiced procedures last week in the Baltic Sea, against the small Royal Netherlands Navy group that also included the frigate F803 Tromp and the diesel-driven Dutch submarine S810 Bruinvis. The vessels visited Stockholm in the second weekend of October. Russia even made use of the confusion started in Swedish and Norwegian press that the RNLN Bruinvis was the cause of it all, which was then copy/pasted by loads of media who rushed the news without double-checking what the real whereabouts of the Bruinvis were: the harbour of Tallinn in Estonia.
During the 1980s Swedish forces regularly went sub hunting, believing it were Russian predators on the coast. However, a lot of times it were US Navy subs testing Swedish defences. Lately Sweden is moving closer to NATO and at the same time has to deal with more Russian activity, like the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker “bodycheck” on a Swedish Air Force jet in July.
LATEST UPDATE 13 AUGUST 2014 | The three French and two Italian aircraft that joined up to 17 helicopters on Wednesday 6 August in fighting the largest forest fire of Sweden in 40 years are leaving. The preliminary departure date is set for Monday 11 August. After several days of intense “water bombing” the Swedish rescue and firefighting authorities feel that what is left of the fire can be best fought on the ground, possible assisted by Swedish helicopters only. Like the Protezione Civile and Sécurité Civile crews, Norwegian helicopter crews have been thanked for their work as well.
On Monday 11 August the air assets will be reduced to two or three Swedish Armed Forces AS332 Super Pumas (HKP10s), eight smaller civilian helicopters and two Swedish Armed Forces UH-60M Black Hawks (HKP16s). Their focus will be mainly transporting firefighters/military personnel to various areas in the 32,000 acres (13,000 hectares) or 6 by 9 miles (10 by 15 km) area affected by the wildfire, to put out the flames on different locations from the ground mainly.
“We are talking about puting out th fire per metre, about 50 kilometres in total”, reads a statement from the provincial authorities. “A third of that area is well situated, but other areas are more difficult to reach. The weather is helping, since rain is predicted over entire area effected by the wildfire. The winds are changing, without causing much worry.”
All CL-415s were in the area since 10:30 on 6 August, but low-visibility was preventing the fire-fighting flights until 17:00. Since 7 August all air assets could deploy fully, with even some luck in weather conditions for the firefighters on 8 and 9 August.
The Italian disaster response authority Protezione Civile has scrambled two of its fire-fighting aircraft, believed to be a pair of its 19 Bombardier CL-415s, to Sweden, upon a special request of Sweden through the European Union’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) on 3 August at 22:50. However, the planes – ready to go on 4 August – stayed on the ground in Italy a long time due to bad weather blocking the route over the Alps.
The Italian CL-415s left Trieste on 5 August at 13:00 local time, landed at Copenhagen IAP (Kastrup) around 22:00 on Tuesday night and arrived at Västerås (Hässlö) around 10:30 on 6 August.
The Swedes also were offered help from the French. Two CL-415s of the Sécurité Civile landed around 20:30 at Västerås airport around 20:30 on 5 August 2014. They are accompanied by a Beechcraft 200 King Air of the same emergency response authority that can be used for surveillance, aerial command and logistics. The French have a dozen CL-415s.
All planes were to start fire-fighting operations on Wednesday morning, but a cold front with low clouds and smoke from the fire on Wednesday kept the planes at Västerås Airport up till 17:00 due to low-visibility of about 650 to 1600 feet (200 to 500 metres) in the fire stricken area. The work by the up to 17 helicopters was somewhat hampered as well. The French Beechcraft King Air made a recon flight just after 16:00 local time, with the authorities giving the green light for the CL-415s to get airborne around 17:00. They concluded their daily mission at around 20:00, like we at Airheadsfly.com predicted, due to the falling darkness. Some Swedish media report the planes were able to drop almost 185,000 gal (700,000 litres) of water, but we could not get this information confirmed at this time. If the number is correct it means that each of the four CL-415s were able to make 29 to 30 fully loaded runs. The first flights of 7 August went airborne around 06:30, with a total of 10 to 14 flight hours per day per aircraft planned with flight crew changes during the day. According to Swedish authorities it will be the first time the large fixed-wing “water bombers” will be deployed in the biggest Scandinavian nation.
All planes are needed to stop what is already called the biggest forest fire of Sweden in 40 years. The area of concern grew from about 24,700 acres (10,000 hectares) or roughly 6 by 6 miles (10 by 10 kilometres) on 4 August to more than 32,000 acres (13,000 hectares) or 6 by 9 miles (10 by 15 km) on 5 August. On 9 August at around 20:00 the area effected by the fire was roughly unchanged (still 150 km2 and an even larger area cordoned off), but less strong winds than predicted gave the firefighters a sort of brake. Meaning: anticipated spreading didn’t take place.
The Bombardier aircraft can scoop up to 1,620 gal (6,140 litres) of water at a time, but need a 1,350 feet (410 metres) long run at 70 knots (130 kmh) of water surface in order to due so. Apart from those 12 seconds at the water, the aircraft need a safe descend and climb to the lake. During shorter runs the aircraft can still scoop up several hundreds of gals (thousands of litres) that will by far still outmatch the much smaller “bags” that helicopters use which only hold 132 to 475 gals (500 to 1,800 litres).
The regional authorities of Västmanland together with the nation-wide MSB decided to have the CL-415s use lake Åmanningen west of the fire zone anyway, where the CL-415s might have a landing surface of 1.5 to 2.4 miles (2.4 to 3.8 km) at best. Åmanningen has been blocked for boat traffic, as well as the lakes of Hörendesjön, Virsbosjön, Fläcksjön, Långsjön and Snyten. Lake Norra Barken near Smedjebacken, with up to 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of landing surface depending on the wind conditions, could be an alternative, but so far is not included in the plans.
Tuesday evening the big lake Mälaren was designated to “water up” in an “water air strip” about 7 miles (11 km) southeast of Västerås Airport. This Granfjärden area in Mälaren is still a reserve location.
The fire started raging on Thursday 31 July, 13 miles (13 km) southwest of the town of Sala around the small lake Öjesjön. The area concerned runs from the settlement of Seglingsberg north or Ramnäs to Ängelsberg, from there eastwards along road 256 to Västerfärnebo and from there roughly in a straight line south. According to a statement by a spokesperson of the the Västmanland regional police on Tuesday afternoon 5 August the start of the fire was likely caused by “sparks from a machine used in some kind of ground work in the forest”.
Ten civilian and 5 military helicopters are engaged in the fire-fighting operations. Amongst them three of Swedish Armed Forces (Försvarsmakten; FVM) Helicopter Command’s HKP10s (Super Pumas) that use the Bambi Buckets attached to the belly, and one Sikorsky HKP16 (UH-60M) Black Hawk as flying command post and evacuation asset. A second HKP10 was added on Tuesday 5 August. Sweden has no fixed-wing fire-fighting capacity.
On the ground up 60 firefighters, 30 military personnel of the regional National Guard (Hemvärnet) and 100 volunteers were engaged on Monday 4 August. Due to risk to the volunteers – 9 of them were hoisted out by helicopter on Monday when they got surrounded by the flames, the tactics were changed. On Tuesday 5 August 110 people were actively engaged in combating the flames, while 30 more were creating firewalls and providing fire fighters with food, another 50 support the helicopter operations. At the end of the day about 350 people were involved. During 8 August 150 firefighters and 100 military personnel were engaged in combating the flames. More military personnel is coming in all the way from Luleå-Kallax Airbase (F21), including an additional four firetrucks and other materiel, in the north of the country.
The area struck by fire – approximately 60 miles (97 km) northwest of Stockholm Arlanda IAP – has been divided into three sectors, with the Swedish Coast Guard (Kustbevakningen) providing one of its Dash-8 Q300 surveillance aircraft based at Skavsta Airport near Stockholm/Nyköping to get an overview of the extend of the fire by using its infrared and video imaging cameras.
On Tuesday 5 August rescue services reported a 30 year old man was found dead in the disaster area, with the cause of death likely the fire. Several homes have gone up in smoke, but the rescue services have no clear overview of that yet. On Monday afternoon 4 August the 80 inhabitants of the Gammelby neighbourhood of Virsbo – west of the fire – were evacuated as flames started to threaten their houses. Around 18:00 local time the rescue services ordered the evacuation of Ängelsberg (140 inhabitants) and the smaller settlements of Västervåla, Sörhörende, Stenbroviken and Hörnsjöfors. In total about 1,000 people have been displaced, with the evacuations concluded around 20:00 hours local time. Slightly northwest of Ängelsberg is Engelsbergs Bruk, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the most modern iron works of 1681. The 80 villagers of Gammelby were allowed to return to their homes on 6 August, but were requested to stand-by for a re-evacuation.
Since Monday evening rescue services have made plans for the possible evacuation of the entire municipality of Norberg: 4,500 people including 600 in the village centre. Together with smaller settlements the total number of people that might have to move in a second wave of evacuations can run up to more than 5,000. On 6 August those evacuation plans were put on hold due to slightly better conditions for the fire-fighters.
Due to changing winds black smoke has reached the northern parts of Västerås on 5 August 2014, with about 100,000 inhabitants population-wise the fifth largest city of Sweden. Smoke is hampering fire-fighting efforts by the 14 to 17 helicopters deployed. The core of the smoke cloud has covered a distance of more than 100 miles (165 km), reaching all the way from Västerås to Rättvik at lake Siljan north of the fire. The burning smell from the forest fire even reached Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth largest city (150,000 inhabitants) on 6 August – about 50 miles (80 km) east of the burning zone.
The area around Öjesjön has only a few roads, making it difficult for ground based personnel to reach the hazard. With temperatures on Monday souring to a summer high of more than 33 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit), a dry air and nature areas screaming for rain the conditions have been excellent for the fire to spread.
Elitaliana signed a preliminary sales contract for two AW109 Trekker light twin engine helicopters in Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) configuration. The medevac choppers are planned to be deployed on new locations besides the Elitaliana’s current bases in the Lazio and Calabria regions of Italy. The deal was announced on 16 July 2014.
Deliveries are scheduled to start in 2016. The contract marks the entrance of the new AW109 Trekker into the HEMS market as well as into the European helicopter market. Elitaliana already operates the AW109 Power and Grand light, and it has ordered six new generation AW169s.
Unveiled at Heli-Expo in March 2014, the AW109 Trekker is the latest addition to Finmeccanica – AgustaWestland’s portfolio. The chopper can be equipped with skid landing gear, which come of very handy in snowy conditions. It has a maximum take-off weight of 7,000 lbs (3,175 kg) but can once in flight be operated at 7,055 lbs (3,200 kg) with external loads or with 3,306 lbs (1,500 kg) of internal load. The cruising speed is 160 knots (296 kmh).
The AW109 Trekker is equipped with a state-of-the-art Garmin G1000HTM glass cockpit. Power is provided by two FADEC equipped Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207C engines. The cabin can accommodate up to six passengers or one stretcher with three or four medical attendants or two stretchers and two medical attendants.
Established in 1964, Elitaliana provides 24 hour a day emergency medical services, its missions also include SAR, utility and passenger transport performed by two AW109 Power and four Grand light twin helicopters. In 2011 and 2013 Elitaliana also signed preliminary sales contracts for a total of six new generation AW169 4.5 ton class light intermediate helicopters.