Despite problems with quality control and the availability of spare parts for the Airbus Helicopters / NHIndustries NH90s of the German Army Aviation, the German Navy got the green light for the procurement of 18 NH90 Sea Lion maritime helicopters this week.
Berlin wants the Nato Frigate Helicopter (NFH) version of the NH90 to replace the aging Westland Mk 41 Sea King operating with Marinefliegergeschwader 5 (MFG5) at Nordholz, and the MFG5’s Westland Mk 88A Sea Lynx choppers that fly from German Navy frigates. The deal was okayed on 4 March 2015.
The land-based NH90 Sea Lions will operate as troop-insertion platform, support for naval special forces and as search-and-rescue chopper. The Sea Lion will be about 60 knots faster than the Sea King, which is one of the reasons why the Navy wants to move quickly forward with the purchase.
German Army Aviation
The Bundeswehr will go ahead with downsizing of the NH90 fleet. As propositioned earlier the Heeresflieger (German Army Aviation) will only get 80 NH90 TTHs, instead of the 134 originally planned a decade ago. Thirty-six were delivered at the end of 2014, but the introduction has been plagued by big operational issues and not even a single NH90 is said to be in full promised operational status. Another two NH90s will be purchased as training system.
Tiger attack helicopter
At the same time the Army Aviation has got to say bye-bye to 11 of its EC665 Tiger attack helicopters of the oldest batch. Berlin has set the operational level to 40 Tigers in total, while Airbus Helicopters delivers another 17 for attrition replacement, testing and training. After complaints about its quality on the battlefield the German Army finally received the last of a dozen upgraded Tiger UHT support helicopters in March 2014.
Germany has stopped routine flying operations with its troubled NH90 helicopters, the German Bundeswehr announced on Friday 6 February. An investigation into an incident that happened last year in Uzbekistan, has led to the decision.
The investigation by Airbus Helicopters found a design flaw in an Overhead Control Panel (OHCP) in the NH90’s cockpit, where a fire suppression switch for the engines could cause a short circuit. Subsequently, the Bundeswehr flight safety authority recommended all routine NH90 operations to be halted, a decision that is now supported by Berlin.
On 19 June 2014, a German NH90 got into big troubles in Uzbekistan as one of its engines exploded during a medical evacuation flight, causing the German Army (Heeresflieger) to already temporary ground the fleet back then. Four NH90TTHs deployed to Afghanistan already in April 2013 to provide a Forward Air Medical Evacuation in Mazar-i-Sharif but were met with additional operational problems in the hot-and-high operations as well. Apart from the big incident, aviators reported issues with other systems as well.
Germany has about forty NH90 helicopters at its disposal. The Bundeswehr now says it expects Airbus Helicopters to come up with a solution as quickly as possible. Berlin confirmed in December it had 80 NH90TTHs on firm order (including the forty delivered) and was still opting for another 22.
The German Special Forces’s (KSK) new EC645 T2 and its civilian version EC145 T2 have been cleared to fly by European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on 17 April 2014. The most powerful EC145 chopper ever is allowed to commence ops in the full range of advertised capabilities, including single-pilot operations, instrument flight rules (IFR) flying and single-engine operations, as well as flying by the aid of night vision goggles.
Despite its relatively small size, the EC645 / EC145 T2 can accommodate up to nine passengers plus a crew of two. The flat, level floor has been optimized for modular changes, meaning seats can be quickly changed for something else like stretchers and medical equipment.
Furthermore, the military version can have gun or missile pods attached on both sides of the fuselage – making the EC645 T2 worthy competition for the often used Hughes/McDonnell Douglas MD500/OH-6/AH-6/MH-6 Cayuse/Loach/Little Bird. The latter has much less room for troops or other passengers and misses another big advantage of the EC645: two big cargo/entry doors in the rear of the fuselage underneath the tail boom.
Compared to the earlier EC145 model the T2 features new Arriel 2E engines (with FADEC) and a Fenestron shrouded tail rotor, upgraded main and tail rotor gear boxes, a more advanced Helionix digital avionics suite that includes large full-colour multi-functional displays and a 4-axis autopilot. The Fenestron technology brings enhanced anti-torque control effeciency to the tail rotor, as well as reduced power demand in forward flight, lower noise and less vibration. The rotor is installed in a new, damage-tolerant all-composite tail boom: meaning in combat it can withstand a certain amount of bullets or shrapnel.
Airbus Helicopters already has approximately 20 EC145 T2s currently are in series production, with more than a 100 of the type ordered, including 15 for the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) as already reported in July 2013.
“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.
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)