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.”
Worldwide, the NHIndustries NH90 helicopter fleet amassed over 100,000 flight hours as of October 2015. Close to 6,000 of those were clocked up by the 18 NH90 helicopters currently flown by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) on behalf of the Dutch Royal Navy, making the Dutch one of the most experienced users. And yes, the NH90 program has had its share of difficulties, but the helicopter now performs to the satisfaction of its crews and shows its potential as a force to be reckoned with, says 860 squadron commander Martin Mos. From walking to running with the force multiplier that is the NH90.
From his squadron office Martin Mos overlooks the flightline at De Kooy air station, located near Den Helder, the city that also houses Holland’s one and only Koninklijke Marine (Royal Navy) base. For close to four decades, this flightline used to be filled with SH-14 Lynx helicopters. In 2010, something far more advanced arrived at De Kooy in the shape of the first Dutch NH90 helicopter, the result of a joint program by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy to design and build a new multi role helicopter. The joint effort started in the early nineties and a first prototype flew on 18 december 1995.
It took a lot of further developing, testing and evaluation before Dutch crews finally got their hands on the helicopter. Since then, a total of 18 NH90s arrived at De Kooy, with the final two helicopters to be delivered by January 2016. It means a full house again for the De Kooy and the based 860 squadron, although maybe not quite: it will be four more years until all helicopters are updated to the Final Radar Configuration (FRC) that makes them true multi role helicopters.
“In the past five years we operated the NH90 mainly in what we call the Meaningful Operational Capability (MOC) or Full Operational Capability (FOC)”, says 860 squadron commander Martin Mos. “It meant we could fulfill basic tasks such as transporting cargo, troops and special forces, support ships in naval operations and assist in search and rescue operations. It also meant that the helicopter was simply not in its end-version yet. We did gain a lot of experience however which helped in bringing us nearer to that final FRC-version. Today, we operate several helicopters in their Final Radar Configuration already.”
As those words are spoken, an NH90 starts its two 2,900 horsepower Turbomecca RTM 322-01/9 engines and minutes later leaves the flightline for practising underslung loads. On other days, helicopters fly from De Kooy to navy ships to assist in operations or to practice winch operations or ever-challenging deck landings. The NH90’s advanced fly by wire system and equally advanced autopilot and auto-hover options reduce workload. The chopper is operated by a single pilot, a tactical coordinator (tacco) and a sensor operator. If needed a diver or a sniper is brought along.
Mos describes five years of Dutch NH90 operations as ‘transitioning from crouching to walking’. Since 2012, the NH90 has been constantly deployed aboard Dutch Royal Navy ships, taking part in successful counter-piracy missions in African waters and counter-drugs operations in Carribean seas. “We are happy with the progress made over the last years. In fact, crews are generally very happy with the NH90. Yes, there were some issues as a result of constant updates and modifications, but we feel we have a platform that offers great stability and lots of potential.”
The positive attitude is shared by NH90 crews in New Zealand and Belgium – as Airheadsfly.com found at last year. It contrasts however with findings in Finland and Germany, were the NH90 is under constant pressure. It also contrasts with corrosion and quality control issues found last year on Dutch NH90s already delivered, forcing a complete stop of new deliveries. “We work together very well with NHI, who had committed itself to tackle those issues”, says Mos while showing parts on the NH90’s nose that have had anti-corrosion treatments. “As for the criticism: it frustrates the crews, as they think it is unjustified. Also, advanced defense platforms such as the NH90 need time to mature. That’s the reality of today.”
The Dutch NH90s are currently involved in Operation & Test and Evaluation (OT&E) for added capabilities, such as sonar deployment for tracking down submarines, plus torpedo launches. The sonar capability is currently tested in operational conditions in operation Trident Juncture in Spanish waters, while torpedo launches were tested in the Dutch waters of the Waddenzee, near Den Helder. Torpedo launches will be further tested in a tactical scenario aboard a frigate in the beginning of 2016.
Multiplier The Final Radar Capability will fulfil the NH90s potential as a force multiplier for naval forces. “The US Coast Guard already named our helicopter as a force multiplier during anti-drug operations in the Carribean”, Mos says. “With the FRC-version, we’ll be able to trully act as a navy ship’s eyes and ears. The NH90’s radar provides a 360 degrees coverage of close to 200 miles. We can see, identify and if necessary attack any ship far away from our own vessel, and all data is transferred to our ship via datalink. Max endurance for the NH90 is about four flying hours.”
At De Kooy, the helicopter practicing lifting underslung loads didn’t take nearly that long. In the decor of a setting sun, the NH90 and its crew return to the flightline, marking the end of the day’s flying. Mos is satisfied: “Right now we are getting the best at the NH90’s current capability. We have learned to walk. In a few years, we’ll get to use the NH90 to its true potential. That’s when we are fully ready. That’s when we’ll be running at full speed.”