LATEST UPDATE 5 OCTOBER 2014 (CORRECTION READINESS LEVELS) | The air assets of the Bundeswehr, the German Armed Forces, are at an alarming low availability rate, according to recent reports leaked to the public via German Der Spiegel magazine.
According to maintenance journals that the editors of Der Spiegel got their hands a shocking low number of only 8 (!) of an official 109 Eurofighter EF2000s, named Typhoon in British service, are fully ready for all combat tasks. Meaning the German Air Force has to rely much on the remaining, aging and maintenance-sensitive Tornado jets to fulfill its duties. But of these 89 swept-wing fighter-bombers and electronic warfare aircraft, only 36 were fully combat ready at the end of September 2014 according to German media.
The number of available Sikorsky CH-53s dropped vertically to as low as 8 machines this summer, while 67 are on strength with an operational aim of 42. The new NHI Industries NH90 – a European product with tremendous problems while being deployed with Germany units in Afghanistan – is not much better of: 5 of the 33 helicopters are flyable. The German Navy’s Sealynx fleet had only four machines available in September.
A main reason for all these problems is partly a lack of funds, partly technical issues with new equipment.
The current star of German international operations, the old C-160 Transall tactical airlifter that flies into Northern Iraq and provides an air bridge between Senegal and the MINUSMA force in Mali, has an availability of about 50 percent – with 20 to 25 of the 56 machines ready to go at a given time.
“Joker 54, cleared for take off, VFR to Würzburg.” In chilly but beautifully clear spring weather, a Bell UH-1D Huey lifts off from Niederstetten airbase for an early flight. As the pilots raises the collective, the typical whopping sound chases away the morning silence. The sound earned the Huey the nickname of ‘Teppichklopfer’ or carpet beater. Local residents will hear the whopping for two more years, after which Transporthubschrauberregiment 30 (THR 30) stops flying the Huey and switches to the NH Industries NH-90TTH. Whether that helicopter builds a reputation as strong as that of the Huey, remains to be seen.
In a nearby hangar, ‘Joker 41’ walks among a dozen UH-1D Hueys and sniffs in their oily smell. Joker 41 is known to his colleague pilots also as Martin. “We all have our own personal call sign and this is mine”, says Martin, who has been flying the Huey since 2008. “It’s such a great helicopter to fly. Especially on take off, the vibrations in the airframe tell you almost everything you need to know. Your whole body vibrates in your chair, and it makes your voice garbled. It makes our radio transmissions hard to understand some times”, smiles the 33 year old pilot.
At Niederstetten, located in the heart of Germany roughly 110 kilometers south east of Frankfurt, a total of 40 Hueys are still being flown by about 50 pilots. Together with 900 other personnel, the pilots form Transporthubschrauberregiment 30, the last army regiment to operate to venerable Huey in German service. The chopper is used for transportation and liaison flight as well as special ops, a specialty of the newly formed Division Schnelle Kräfte (DSK) of which THR 30 is part. During the latest Cold Response exercise in Norway, six Hueys from THR 30 took part, dropping special forces in difficult terrain.
“Low flying is especially fun in the Huey”, says Martin. West from Niederstetten is a huge Helicopter Flight Coordination Area (HFCA) where crew train their skills while flying under 100 feet. “And we go really low, some times only a couple of feet. You then notice that the Huey is an old design however. It’s just not as agile as say a NH-90. If I see a tree line appearing ahead of me, I have to think ahead of the aircraft. The Huey takes time to respond to control inputs.”
Until recently the Huey was a sobering surprise for young student pilots. It first flew in 1956, has been produced more than 10,000 times and served famously in the Vietnam war. Martin: “The student pilots came here after flying the Eurocopter EC-135 at Bückeburg and were often shocked by the lack of autopilot or auto-hover. They discovered that the Huey is a true flying machine.”
With the withdrawal of the Huey approaching, no new pilots are coming to Niederstetten anymore. Instead, the first Niederstetten pilots are getting to know the NH-90 a little bit. The first new NH90 is expected in 2015, and in preparation new hangars are already completed.
But, no rest for the remaining Huey pilots, as THR 30 is also responsible for a nationwide search and rescue mission since this task was transferred from the Luftwaffe to the Bundeswehr (army). SAR duty is performed from Landsberg airfield in the south, Nörvenich in the west and Holzdorf in the east. At each location, two Hueys are on standby, recognizable by their brightly orange doors. Whereas the usual Huey crew consists of two pilots and one flight engineer, a SAR crew is made up of one pilot, one flight engineer and a medic.
It’s tasks like these that ask for tiptop maintenance on these 40 year old helicopters – as most German Hueys were delivered between 1974 and 1978. “We know every screw on these helicopters”, says Thomas Kaufmann, head of the maintenance department. “They are easy to maintain as they are about mechanics more than avionics. However, spare parts are becoming a bit of a problem. What we do, is fly the helicopters that have plenty of hours of left, using parts of others. I think the most hours for one aircraft is about 3,900”, states Kaufmann while he inspects a Huey’s 1200 horsepower Lycoming T53-L-13B engine. “We do all our inspections ourselves, except for the major overhauls. For that, we send them to RUAG in Oberpfaffenhofen.”
Local technicians grew up with the Huey and will therefore be sad to see it go in two years time. The NH-90 is aircraft maintenance on another level, but not necessarily more fun. Huey pilot Martin has faith in THR 30’s future workhorse however. “The German army operates the type in Afghanistan, and it performs pretty good. And we get, of course, a lot more agility and flexibility with the NH-90. Our NATO tasks demand that kind of capability from us.” Coming July, THR 30 is planned to take part in NATO helicopter exercise Hot Blade in Portugal, still using their current helos.
Meanwhile, the the airfield and surroundings reverberate under the thump of several UH-1D performing local flights. In the control tower nearby, ATC carefully observes all traffic. Niederstetten was build in the 1930s, and now sees 25.000 aircraft movements yearly. “We get a lot of visiting choppers, like US Black Hawks or Apaches. Now there’s a Dutch Chinook coming”, says the ATC staff as ‘Grizzly 52’ announces itself on the tower freq. Indeed, a few minutes later the Dutch helo appears for refuel. The flightplan shows it is on its way to Austria.
All of that is however of no importance to Joker 54, who now is returning from his VFR flight in the neighbourhood. Despite the perfect morning weather, Joker 54 decides it is time for a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) to Niederstetten’s runway 25. While the GCA-operator monitors the decent, the people of surrounding villages start hearing that familiar whopping sound again. The charismatic Teppichklopfer is coming home again, and its final home is at Niederstetten.
Editorial note: last name of pilot Martin has intentionally been omitted.
If you like choppers, Portugal is the place to be these days as the Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa; FAP) hosts the multinational helicopter exercise Hote Blade 13 at Ovar Airbase near the city of Porto.
Hot Blade 13 will see the involvement of 38 aircraft, including two Agusta Westland EH-101 Merlin helicopters from the FAP itself and possibly even a few of the FAP’s F-16 fighter aircraft.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force contributes an Eurocopter AS 532U2 Mk II Cougar and as much as up to five Boeing CH-47D/F Chinooks.
The Austrian Air Force sent three Agusta Bell AB 212s and three Bell OH-58 Kiowas. Four Belgian Air Component Agusta A109BAs has joined the exercise, as well as up to eight German Army UH-1D ‘Hueys’.
Hot Blade 13 started on July 17th and will last till July 31st.
Source: Força Aérea Portuguesa, NL Ministerie van Defensie