Despite recommendations of manufacturer Airbus Helicopters not to keep the fleet on the ground, the authorities in Norway have prohibited any flights with EC225LP and AS332L2 Super Puma helicopters just before the weekend.
The move comes after initial findings of the investigation of the crash of a CHC Helikopter Service Super Puma on 29 April. The chopper – flying for Statoil’s offshore activities – was on route from Gullfaks B in the North Sea to Bergen Airport in Flesland, Norway. Just when it reached land the main rotor separated from the chopper, with all 13 on board killed when the rest of the aircraft plummeted to a small peninsula.
Also the United Kingdom has limited the flight ops with the Super Puma. Passenger traffic is not allowed, but search and rescue activities are with both the EC225LP and the AS332LP.
When it comes to offshore activities in the North Sea, the Sikorsky S-92 is now the only main workhorse left in action. But since the oil crisis makes for less activities, Norwegian authorities think the business will be fine.
Under economic pressure the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) was saying goodbye to the Cougar helicopter, but the vital function of the tactical transport helicopter saved from the axe was shown clearly this week during an airlanding exercise near Arnhem, the Netherlands.
The military training grounds of Deelen and the Ede Heath saw a lot of action in a normally quiet Autumn. A total of six RNLAF choppers were flying back and forth with military equipment, from pallets to vehicles. The double rotor choppers – aka Boeing CH-47 Chinooks – are not easy to miss, but the quieter and real stars of the show were the AS532U2 Cougars.
SFOR in Bosnia
Seventeen of these machines won over the legendary Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk when the Royal Netherlands Army was looking for a proper rotary airlift in the 1990s. Designed by Aérospatiale, built by its successor Eurocopter and currently named Airbus Helicopters, the French built machines arrived in 1996 and 1997. Their service record has not been without trouble. The machines were notorious for leaking fuel and the lack of de-icing equipment did hamper operations a bit while 5 machines operated with the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia in 2001, the RNLAF Cougars’ first operational deployment.
Neither fond of heat the Cougars also had some issues while flying from Tallil Airbase in Iraq in 2004. Operation in 2006 to 2010 as part of the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces Task Force Uruzgan in Afghanistan were limited by Cougars not only having to combat heat but also high altitude operations, flying from inside the Uruzgan province and Kandahar.
But the choppers were still able to perform important tasks in support of the Royal Netherlands Army, as Search-and-Rescue or medevac asset, as shipborne troop transport helicopter for the amphibian forces of the Marine Corps of the Royal Netherlands Navy embarked on landing transport docks, and as fire fighter with the so-called bambibucket both at home and abroad.
Flying up to 500 miles (800 km) – further with additional fuel tanks – the Cougar operates normally with a crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, loadmaster and door gunner on a 7.62 mm machine gun. The cargo hold has room for 10 fully equipped troops or 14 without equipment. In the medevac role a doctor/anesthetist and a nurse are on board to take car of up to six patients, three sitting up and three lying down.
Gilze Rijen Airbase
All Cougars fly with 300 Squadron, operating from Gilze Rijen Airbase. The unit’s personnel were shocked to learn in 2011 that their job was about to disappear when the Ministry of Defence in the Hague announced another round of downsizing. But even with the awaited beefing up of the Boeing CH-47F Chinook fleet to 20 machines, having the NH90 choppers on strength at 18 the military and defence policital leadership say they have noticed a lack of rotary wing capacity if there would no longer be any Cougars.
Cougar service life
So the French design from 1965 will stay part of the fleet until at least 2023, Defence minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert recently wrote to the parliament in the Hague. Currently down to 12 operational machines a even smaller number of Cougars will keep on flying till the end of their new decided service life until the leadership is confident the Foxtrot Chinooks and NH90s can do the job together.
11th Airborne Brigade
As illustrated again at the Ede Heath and Deelen training grounds this week, the Cougars and Chinooks often operate closely together with the 11th Airborne Brigade of the Royal Netherlands Army. That capacity – although not fully used since 2013 as the red berets have been deployed more conventionally – is something the Netherlands would like to keep. Possibly in light of the increased Russian activity on the borders with NATO, where the strengthened Russian Aviation Regiments are training on blitzkrieg-like offensive maneouvres by quickly moving sizable ground units through the air by Mil Mi-8/Mi-17s escored by Mi-24/35 Hind attack helicopters.
Backed by renewed trust the men and women of 300 Squadron of the RNLAF showed this week that although plagued through its service life, they are up to the challenge of airlifting combat reinforcements to airheads in the field, in the way the AS532U2 Cougar was originally purchased for.
Airbus Helicopters and Beijing have struck a preliminary deal on the planned H135 final assembly line that is meant to produce 100 H135 helicopters over the next ten years.
The European manufacturer feels that China will be the world’s largest market for helicopters and hopes that with the envisaged opening of its own production line in the near future it will make it even more easy to sell European designed helicopters in the vast Asian country.
During the signing of the letter of intent the Airbus and its Chinese partners committed to opening up a sales office, as well as a maintenance, repair, overhaul and training capacity with the production plant in China.
The H135 is a light twin-engine helicopter that already flies in China performing mainly emergency medical services (HEMS) and police missions. Airbus thinks the Chinese civil and “parapublic” market for rotary aircraft will grow quickly.
Airbus Helicopters has delivered nearly 1,200 helicopters of the H135-family (as Eurocopter EC135; the former type name) to customers around the globe, which have logged more than 3 million flight hours. One-quarter of this total fleet is deployed for HEMS duties.
Skies have become slightly more boring in Sweden, after the last Aérospatiale (currently Airbus Helicopters) AS332 Super Puma helicopter of the Swedish Armed Forces made its final landing on 22 October.
The last HKP 10 (Helikopter 10) – as the type was dubbed in Swedish military service – touched down on Linköping-Malmen Airbase, 27 years after the day in March 19888 when the first search-and-rescue variant took to the air at F21 Luleå-Kallax Airbase in the north of the country.
The dozen Super Pumas that Sweden ordered were delivered up till 1995, replace the aging HKP 4 (CH-46 Sea Knight) as SAR chopper. Troop transport and medevac were roles later added. More recently three of the Swedish Armed Forces even served in Afghanistan for a period of two years in the latter role. The last serious operational missions were flown by two machines in August this year, when they supported the big Army Exercise 15 (AÖ15), and last week during Exercise Jämtgubben HKP10 with number 97 took part in a real exercise scenario.
For the number freaks: the choppers together made 71,000 flight hours, using 44.5 million litres of fuel. During the service period three of the 12 helicopters were written off due to accidents. Of the remaining nine machines, six are now stored in Linköping offered for sale. Two other machines will go to museums while the ninth aircraft will be used for technical education.
The role of the HKP10 is now resting on the shoulders of the plagued NHIndustries NH90, named HKP 14 in Swedish Armed Forces service. Of the 18 machines Sweden hopes to have in 2019, ten have now been delivered. Half of the current fleet flies with the Helicopter Squadron at Luleå in the far north, the other half with the chopper unit at Ronneby in the far south.
Since deliveries and operational availability were very problematic the Swedish government ordered 15 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk choppers in 2011, which were quickly delivered and which will stay operational as the country’s defence and political leadership seems to be very happy with their availability.
The seventeen Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) Cougar transport helicopters were earmarked for retirement as early as 2011 once, but Dutch Defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on Wednesday 14 October reported to parliament that they will now remain into service until 2023. It’s rehabilitation for the helicopters, that never saw much love in the Netherlands.
The Cougar suddenly seemed on its way out in 2011 already because of budget cause. A lacking search and rescue capability forced the RNLAF to keep a number in service, however. Before today, 2020 was mentioned as the final year for the Dutch Cougars, the first of which was delivered in 1996.
Keeping them flying until 2023 will cost Dutch taxpayers 130 million EUR. The choppers are based at Gilze Rijen airbase.