Airbus Helicopters has won the support contract to maintain, overhaul and ensure the availability of the German Army Aviation School’s fleet of EC135 training helicopters, it was announced on Monday 15 December .This extends the existing contract, signed in 2005, by a further seven years.
The German Army Aviation School in Bückeburg trains some 70 future Bundeswehr pilots yearly using a total of 14 EC135 aircraft, which log about 6,000 flight hours a year. Over the course of twelve months, student pilots learn how to fly a helicopter under visual flight rules and also qualify in IFR and sensor flight in low-altitude night flight.
“At the core of the Airbus Helicopters full service contract is ensuring that on virtually every working day, eleven EC135 aircraft are available on the airfield for training purposes. This puts the fleet’s operational availability at over 95 percent,” says Ralf Barnscheidt, Head of the Military Support Center in Germany.
“So, what would you like us to do?”, say two Agusta Bell AB212 helicopter pilots, the badges on their flying suits identifying them as ‘Bundesheer’ pilots. “Err, just fly around a bit”, comes the unrehearsed answer of two Airheadsfly.com editors. The pilots take off, turn around and have decided on what they will really do. They position their five tonnes chopper almost on top of two totally unprepared Airheadsfly.com editors, ensuring camera bags, lens caps, sunglasses, note pads and lost ego’s fly everywhere. The noise is deafening, the wind is blinding and for a moment, peaceful Austria seems far, far away.
But still, we are in Linz, Austria, where two Staffels (squadrons) fly the 23 Agusta Bell AB212 helicopters in service with the Austrian Air Force. “But, I have to say, we are experiencing quiet times now”, says ‘Staffelkommandant’ Andreas Buchmayr as he enters one the hangers that usually house flocks of AB212s, but now only shelter two. “A lot of them are in maintenance or are being given an update – and new life – in Italy by Agusta Westland. Here at Linz, we currently have to make ends meet with only a few available helicopters.”
The AB212 has been a mainstay of Austria’s helicopter transport capability since entry into service in 1980. As the fleet amassed over 115,000 flight hours in 2010, an 85 million USD update program was ordered. The goal is to get another 25 years or 100,000 hours out of the helicopters. Modifications bring the 212’s avionics up to par with the latests aviation technology. Self defense suites are also being built into the AB212. The first two modernized choppers were handed over to Kommando Luftunterstützung (Air Support Command) in November 2013.
“It’s actually pretty impressive”, says Buchmayr, who has 3,200 flight hours behind his name and helped develop the AB212 update. “We have a unique set of MFDs in the cockpit, designed exactly to our specifications and making full use of digital technology. Cockpit managment is now completely paperless, as all maps are available on the MFDs, along with complete systems management. It greatly reduces crew workload and makes for easier navigation and communication. The cockpit is now also adapted for use with Helmet Mounted Displays. Flight safety during bad weather and during night time, is greatly improved. Actually, our AB212 helicopters are now at the very top worldwide as far as cockpit technology goes.”
New cockpits or not, the AB212 mission in Austria remains the same; transporting troops, performing search and rescue operations, fighting fires with bambi buckets and alpine flying in the mountains. The AB212 is a very versatile utility helicopter, which is no wonder considering its Bell UH-1 Huey heritage.
So, it’s also no wonder the Austrians want to keep in service for a lot longer. The update program is planned to by complete by 2016, at which time the hangers at Linz will be filled with choppers once again. Pilots will be fully trained on the new cockpit, and when they ask “so, what would you like us to do?”, two totally prepared Airheadsfly.com editors will know what to answer.
Across the impressive green landscape of Austria, a high pitched screeching sound reverberates against the Alps. It doesn’t seem to worry two women walking a baby stroller on this sunny day. They’re not impressed as the sound comes even closer, only to be drowned out by the sound of a beautiful waterfall at the foot of a mountain called Grimming. The two local women know this waterfall, they know this mountain, and they know this high pitched screeching sound alright. It has been around for 47 years in Austria.
The sound is the familiar sound that lets everybody in the area know there’s an Alouette III helicopter about. It just took off from nearby Aigen-im-Enstall airbase for a training flight including winch operations next to the waterfall. It’s routine stuff for the pilots of Mehrzweckhubschrauberstaffel (utility helicopter squadron), who know the Alouette and the scenery surrounding Aigen-im-Enstall like the back of their hands. However, they also operate in theaters where they are less familiar, the ongoing mission in Bosnia being a prime example. During the May 2014 floods, Austrian Alouette and Black Hawk helicopters hoisted many dozens of trapped civilians to safety.
“It was constant hard work for our colleagues. They flew 60 hours in three days”, says Thomas Schönauer, an Alouette pilot with 1,500 flight hours, 2,100 high mountain landings and 800 winch operations under his name. “Three of our 15 Alouette pilots are now in Bosnia, and in Austria we also always have an Alouette and pilot standing by in Schwarz and Klagenfurt. These operations take a big hit on our squadron, and while it seems a bit quiet here at Aigen-im-Enstall, we’ve actually been very busy for a long time.”
Search and rescue (SAR) is perhaps the most important mission of the Sud Aviation / Aérospatiale Alouette III, of which the Austrian Bundesheer has 24, of which in turn 16 are part of Mehrzweckhubschrauberstaffel. “While the Alouette is of course an old design without autopilot and fancy avionics, it is actually very suited to the mission. It is a very reliable helicopter, and it’s max take-off weight of 2,200 kilograms – or 4,848 lbs – is plenty. It is also easy to maintain. We are quite independent and do almost all kinds of maintenance ourselves here at Aigen-im-Enstall”, says Schönauer as he points out a mechanic working on the Alouette’s 460 horsepower Turboméca Artouste IIIB turboshaft engine.
Austrian Alouettes can be found operating all over the Austrian Alps, involved in SAR, looking out for avalanche danger in wintertime and dropping explosives to trigger one, transporting military personnel from one base to the other or just doing VFR training across the famously impressive Austrian landscape. “We usually fly in the valleys and only go up the mountains when we really need to. Still, we are perhaps the most experienced in Europe when it comes to mountain flying. Crews from Germany, the UK and Ireland come over here to see how it’s done.”
Mountains cause problems when it comes to communications. The VHF and UHF transmission are blocked, and the Austrian Bundesheer is now starting to install digital radios in the Alouettes. Other modifications include new seats and a simple GPS. Also, the Alouettes are adapted for the use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG).
Austrian Alouettes have been around for 47 years now, but they won’t be around forever. “These helicopters are getting old, and we now have to look more carefully at flight hours”, says Schönauer. “We will see a reduction of flight hours over the next six years. It may mean that our pilots fly less hours a year than than we would like to see.”
If it was up to the pilots at Aigen-im-Enstall, the Airbus Helicopters EC645 T2 is the helicopter to replace the aging Alouette. “That is the helicopter that meets all our requirements. It operates in the spectrum that is required to keep up our experience. Unfortunately a decision has yet to be made on replacing the Alouette.”
So, until at least 2020, the sound of an Alouette will regularly reverberate across the Alps, be it during training missions or during an all important, actual search and rescue mission. Of course Austrians don’t worry when hearing the high pitched screeching sound; they know it’ll be alright.
UPDATED 20 MARCH 2014 | Sixteen thousand troops, 16 nations and a sizable sea force supported by numerous airplanes are currently scrambling to defend the northern coasts of Norway. Why? To show that NATO and her partners have teeth and to train to keep those sharp during exercise Cold Response 2014. The first units have moving in place since the end of February, getting ready for the day the war games begin on 11 March 2014 (DV Day) in what can become the biggest joint combined military exercises of Western Europe this year.
The 6th edition of the multinational winter war exercise hosted by Norway brings units from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom together. In an area that is more than 200 km (124 miles) long and between 50 and 100 km (31 and 62 miles) deep, all the way from the southern tip of the beautiful Lofoten islands to the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø. Epicentre is Narvik-Harstad. The air forces involved will use a even bigger chunk of the Norwegian coast, with operations going on all the way from Tromsø to Trondheim in the south of the country.
Cold Response 2014 concluded the operations on 19 March, with the Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s from 331, 332 and 338 squadrons flying 35 missions. For some countries, like Sweden, be the biggest military exercise of the year. The Swedes contribute 1400 troops this year and will lead the multinational brigade for the first time. The brigade includes forces from the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Norway. The naval manoeuvers that preluded the exercise had been given their own operation’s name, Dynamic Mongoose, that also saw the involvement of three Royal Navy Merlins. Of course more interesting to us are all air assets of Cold Response 2014.
In-theatre airbases will be Tromsø, Bardufoss, Andenes and Narvik-Harstad. Bodø and Ørland will be used as launching or retracting airfields during the simulated war, and possibly even Luleå-Kallax in Sweden. No word about Kiruna this year, which might have been skipped after the sensitive crash of a RNoAF C-130J on 15 March 2012 en route to Kiruna Flygplats.
Luftforsvaret (Royal Norwegian Air Force)
The RNoAF will contributes to CR14:
Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcon from Bodø (331/332 skvadron) and Ørland (338 skvadron), incl. machines with tail no. 659, 675, 687, 688
Lockheed P-3 Orion from Andøya/Andenes, 333 skvadron, including P-3C Orion with tail nr. 3298
Lockheed C-130J Hercules from Gardermoen, 335 skvadron
Dassault DA-20 Jet Falcon from Rygge, 717 skvadron
Bell 412SP from Bardufoss (339 skvadron) and possibly Rygge (720 skvadron), including machines with tail no. 139, 142, 143, 157 and 167
NH90 from Bardufoss (operational test & evaluation / 334 skvadron), including machine with tail no. 049
Sikorsky/Westland Sea King Mk 43 from Bardufoss, 330 skvadron
Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force)
The SweAF will contributes to CR14:
8 – 10 SAAB JAS 39 Gripen* from F21 Luleå-Kallax (Norrbottens flygflottilj), 211 & 212 Wing (Stridsflygdivision)
2 SAAB JAS 39 Gripen* from F17 Ronneby (Blekinge flygflottilj), 171 Wing (Stridsflygdivisionen)
The Eurofighter EF2000 / Typhoon is often that much grounded, that less than three quarters of the front-line fighting force is available to the countries that need them. Some aircraft marked for flying spend years without any hour in the air. Moreover, the operating costs are much higher than promised or planned.
Internal German Armed Forces technical reports leaked out to the German press in November 2013. They clearly cut out the problems for the 5th generation fighter. As the Luftwaffe officially operated more than a 100 Eurofighters in October this year, only 73 were available at a time. For comparison: the Swedish made Saab Gripen – also a 5th generation fighter – can reach 85 to 95 percent of availability.
With the Gripens it are mostly budget restrains that prevent the air forces of keeping them flying. While with the Eurofighter it are many technical failures and problems with the quality control at manufacturer EADS. Some EF2000s seem to spend years on the ground, according to the leaked reports.
Meanwhile, the operating costs for Eurofighters that do fly have gone up to an average of 80,000 euro per flying hour. That is much more than originally planned and an embarrassment compared to the 16,000 – 18,000 euro/hour for a fairly new F-16 or 18,000 – 20,000 euro/hour for the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.