The year 2014 is littered with celebrations of first flights of what have become legendary aircraft. Airheadsfly.com started with 40 years of F-16, moved on to 40 years of Tornado, reported on 60 years of C-130 Hercules and now 45 years of Mi-24 combat helicopter, nicknamed the Flying Tank but most commonly known by its NATO-reporting name: Hind.
On 19 September 1969 test pilot German Alferov took to the air for the first time the prototype of what would become the Western world’s and anti-Soviet rebels most feared air asset. Made with international tensions nearing one of the highest points of modern history, the assault and attack helicopter was developed in roughly more than a year – a record. Thanks not only to the pressure by the government of the then Soviet Union that is now Russia and many other states, but also thanks to the research and guidance by chief-designer Mikhail Mil who’s family name is still serving many of the world’s rotary craft.
To make serial production at Rostvertol in Rostov-on-Don and Progress Arsenyev Aviation Plant in Russia’s Far East quickly possible, Mil’s designers and technicians used a lot of components already in use for the Mi-8 transport helicopter and the Mi-14 anti-submarine chopper already coming of the production line. Together with the Moscow Mil Helicopter Plant all three companies would many decades later merge into Russian Helicopters, as part of the Russian State weapons corporation Rostec’s daughter organisation Oboronprom.
Records Once introduced the Mi-24 set records, in 1975 alone eight for speed and lifting by test pilots Galina Rastorgueva and Lyudmila Polyanskaya. Three years later test pilot Gurgen Karapetyan recorded the highest speed by any helicopter at that time: 198.9 knots (368.4 kmh).
Since its introduction more than 3,500 Mi-24 and derivatives have been produced, with the type in service in 40 countries worldwide including some of the former Warsaw Pact forces turned into NATO allies, like the Czech Air Force, the Hungarian Air Force plus the Polish Air and Land Forces.
The newest Hind version, the Mi-35M, went into serial production in 2005. It is the helicopter that is today supplied to the Russian Army Aviation Regiments, but also to many other countries including Brazil. What the Kalashnikov became for small arms, the Mi-24/Mi-35 became for rotary wing warfare: the probably most reliable, relatively affordable and still fearsome weapon of its class on today’s battlefield.
The Czech aviation maintenance and refurbishment company LOM Praha is currently in talks with the Iraqi government about supplying the militant-plagued nation with ex-Czech armed forces Mil Mi-24 Hinds. The deal almost certainly involves the seven Mi-24V Hinds that AIRheads↑Fly already mentioned following our February visit to LOM Praha.
LOM Praha is acting on behalf of a official request by the Czech Ministry of Defence, a spokesperson of the department confirmed on 21 June 2014. The deal also involves modification of the attack helicopters.
Baghdad is finding ways to beef up its air power, especially now that rebel ISIS forces have taken over large parts of the country in recent weeks and are threatening other government control areas. The situation even worries the United States, which has sent “military advisors” to support the Iraqi military.
The Czech defence spokesperson says there are currently no plans to withdraw any of the current active Hinds within the Czech armed forces, but that Prague is happy to let LOM Praha modernise and deliver any Mi-24s it has or can find to meet Iraqi needs.
During AIRheads↑Fly visit to the LOM Praha plant earlier this year, our editors noticed seven surplus decommissioned Hinds, including Mi-24Vs. A spokesperson at LOM Praha confirmed at the time the helicopters were for sale.
Fierce wars are fought out daily in a low-key building at Pardubice airbase in the Czech Republic. Yet, inside the guarded building it is quiet. Men in flying suits walk in, only to come out hours later, after being bombarded with knowledge on tactical flying. This is the Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC), where Czech Air Force and other NATO-pilots brush up their skills in blue vs. red scenarios, with up to eight players at one time. It’s done digitally, with interlinked cockpit simulators and the impressive ‘God’s view’. How’s that for multiplayer action?
In the darkened main room of the TSC, four large black half-domes house four tactical simulators. The cockpits represent those of Saab JAS 39C Gripen air superiority fighters or L-159 ALCAs used for ground attack, with potential of future extension to other types of aircraft if requested. Each pilot has all tactical instruments and information laid before him on touch screen displays, and of course he has a stick and throttle identical to those in real aircraft. On the inside of the domes, a digital flying world is created, true to any scenario in any place of the world. This is tactical flying simulation at its best.
Over to the side are four more tactical simulators, simplified versions with slightly less impressive visualization possibilities. Also in the TSC there are two Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) stations and a Forward Air Controller (FAC) station. Elsewhere are briefing rooms, and in those rooms practicing pilots prepare their missions. However, they will never leave the ground while flying those missions. The TSC is a very cost effective solution; for the price of one flying hour in a modern fighter aircraft, dozens of aircrew can be trained for hours and hours.
No wonder other NATO-members are interested in the TSC, which is run by LOM PRAHA and is classified as ‘NATO secret’. Last year, a virtual Tiger Meet was successfully staged here, with air crew from various nations taking part.
Also, Slovak pilots have already trained in Pardubice and Germany and Poland are interested in having their pilots educated there as well. The TSC currently finishes adaption of the cockpit simulators to the L-39 standard, which means TSC can offer tactical training for all jet aircraft in the Czech forces. There are also plans to adapt the cockpit simulators to Lockheed Martin F-16 or MiG-29 standard.
Training takes place based on a range of scenarios, complete with radar threats, air defence systems, jamming. Air-to-air combat in simulated in beyond visual range (BVR) and within visual range (WVR) situations. Sit in one of the cockpit simulators and suddenly a Su-27 can pop up at long range inside your head up display (HUD), or even at your immediate 3 o’clock, too close for comfort. The GCI controller is guiding you via your headset. Maybe your wingman in the dome next to you will help you out, while you’re busy flying evasive maneuvers over a mountainous landscape. It gets exciting!
After the execution of the mission comes the debrief and 3D After Action Review (AAR). On large screens in the middle of the building, the mission is played back from all possible angles. The movements of each of up to eight ‘players’ are closely scrutinized, but there’s also the big picture (God’s view) of all the action. Each mission is thoroughly debriefed, evaluated and analyzed. And then, it’s lessons learned.
In the Tactical Simulation Centre it has been going on like this since November 2011, when the first courses started. Dozens and dozens of NATO combat pilots have been cost effectively trained on tactics. The centre has also attracted attention from fellow Air Combat Simulation Centre in Sweden, and a real-time connection to a similar installation in Sweden is on the cards. It’s good already at the TSC in Pardubice, and it will only get better.
In an assembly hall in Prague, a technician shines a light on a tiny metal tube. He carefully inspects it and finally gives it an approving nod. It is one of many components of a TV3-117VM engine, which in turn is part of a Czech Air Force Mi-171s Hip. Nearby, in a hangar outside Kbely airbase, the helicopter itself receives the same careful attention. Here, Mil helicopters undergo overhaul in the hands of LOM PRAHA, a company specializing in MRO for Mil helicopters and soon celebrating its 100th anniversary. A century of experience in aviation maintenance means top quality, courtesy of LOM PRAHA, a ‘Hip’ heaven.
A visit to LOM PRAHA means a showcase of craftsmanship, certified by Mil helicopters and the Klimov engine company among others. The company has a vast expertise in maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-171 Hip helicopters, and their Klimov engines, gearboxes, auxiliary power units and other systems. The company also offers MRO services for Mi-2, Mi-24 and Mi-35 helicopters, plus L-39 trainer jet including their turbofan AI-25TL engines. Furthermore it is an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of its own small piston engines, intended for various aerobatic and classic aircraft.
Hip helicopters are always to been seen at LOM PRAHA, being carefully overhauled and maintained. During AIRheads↑Fly’s visit here in February, many of the helicopters present were Czech Air Force machines. The state owned company provides its services to an increasing number of foreign customers, but the largest client and strategic partner is still the Czech MoD.
During a D-level overhaul – to be performed usually every 8 years or after 2000 flying hours – the helicopters are completely stripped down to the last screw. All of their components are inspected and are either repaired or completely replaced with new ones. During D-level maintenance – performed every 8 years or after 2000 flying hours – the helicopters are completely stripped and inspected, their parts replaced or repaired when necessary.
The engines, gearboxes and APUs are brought to the engine LOM PRAHA workshop in Prague Malesice for MRO. After arriving, they are completely taken apart, cleaned, inspected, repaired and put together again in accordance with the OEM’s technical bulletins. The maintenance staff is composed of experienced older engineers, as well as young ones, which are qualified fresh graduates of technical universities. Technicians are then shaped into experts, able to always supply the emphasis on the top quality LOM PRAHA offers to its domestic and global clientele.
The typical overhaul process takes five to six months, depending mostly on the shape of the helicopter as arrives for overhaul. When the overhaul is done, the aircraft is just like brand new. It’s a trademark of LOM PRAHA: “Our customers are often unable to distinguish one of our overhauled helicopters from a new one”, says Daniel Dvorak, marketing manager of LOM PRAHA – a company that provides work to over 850 people.
Besides providing MRO services, which is the ongoing core business, LOM PRAHA also offers modernisations for Mil Mi helicopters. The Mi-17/171 helicopter is renowned for its flight performance – it is durable, reliable – and a true workhorse which is able to operate in conditions few other helicopters could. The avionics and other systems however, need attention in order to suit the needs of the customer requirements for the battlefield of the 21st century.
Czech Mi-171Sh helicopters, which were deployed in the ISAF operation, were fully modernised by LOM PRAHA. The modernisation effort concerned the implementation of additional composite armoring, ballistic protection, countermeasures, jammers, avionics, navigation systems, but also details such as more comfortable and crash-worthy crew seats and air conditioning units. Some of these Mi-171Sh helicopters were also upgraded with FLIR and served in special purpose missions.
During ISAF, Mi-171 helos overhauled, modernized and maintained by LOM PRAHA, flew over 2800 flight hours, transported around 9000 troops and 350 tonnes of cargo. All of this, without a single accident or malfunctions in this high risk environment with challenging climatic conditions for any aviation hardware. The heavy use of Mil helicopters in recent years, means a lot of hard work for LOM, but also a possibility to gain further expertise in research and development into the upgrade possibilities.
Mil Mi-8/17/171 helicopters are machines that are built to last – over 12,000 in the different variants were produced and operate even in the toughest conditions all over the world. Yet, as workers position the massive gearbox of a Mi-17 into place, they know that this durability depends on their maintenance skills. In a few days, the helicopter they are working on will be pulled over to Kbely airbase to perform a test flight, after which the helo will return to its owner: the Czech Air Force. They’ll think they are receiving a brand new helicopter. They are not. They are receiving top quality work from LOM PRAHA.
LOM PRAHA offers complex services for Mil helicopters and L-39 aircraft, mainly for Mi-2, Mi-8/17, Mi-24/35s helicopters and their equipment (turboshaft engines, gearboxes and auxiliary power units) as well as repairs of L-39 aircraft and their engines. www.lompraha.cz
Sahara sand. It’s not what you’d expect to hear at 07:45hrs on a February morning at the Czech Republic’s airbase of Čáslav. Yet, it’s exactly what the assembled Gripen pilots are told during their morning briefing. The airbase is covered by a fine layer of Sahara sand, brought by yesterday’s rain. The crew smile, because they know their equipment will have no problem with a bit of sand. Nearing a decade of flying the Gripen, the Czech are confident but also looking for further ways to get the maximum out of their prize fighter.
In fact, in some ways the Czech are already getting the max out of their twelve Saab JAS 39C single seaters and two JAS 39D dual-seat Gripens. The Czech Air Force (Vzdušné síly Armády České republiky) has proven to be the type’s most extensive user. The leased aircraft spend more hours in the air than their Swedish brethren.
“We took the lead last year with some of our aircraft passing 1,400 hours of flying time”, says major Jaroslav Tomaňa (38), commander of 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron) during an exclusive interview with AIRheads↑FLY. “We are at the forefront of JAS 39C/D Gripen operations. In 2015 we’ll celebrate ten years of flying this aircraft.” Up to now, the Čáslav Gripens spent 16,840 hours in the air in total.
The Czech have had a steep learning curve behind them, says Tomaňa, who himself has 1,100 hours on the type. Last year, he took command of 211 ‘Gripen’ squadron. “I first flew the JAS 39A Gripen in Sweden in 2005, flying the L-159 ALCA before that. The Gripen immediately proved an amazing, smooth aircraft to fly. But transitioning from the JAS 39A to the C-model was initially quite hard, since we had no two-seat operational trainer available at the time. However, it all worked out.”
The military airfield of Čáslav is
officially known as the 21st Tactical Air Force Base Zvolenská.
It is located just north of the city of Čáslav, about an hour drive (45 mls / 75 km)
east of the Czech capital of Prague. Čáslav is home to the Czech Republic’s only
frontline multi-role fighter unit: 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron)
flying the Swedish made SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The Czech Air Force is now an almost independent user, with only three staff personnel of the Swedish Armed Forces Materiel Agency (Försvarets Materielverk; FMV) still present at Čáslav. “We have gained a lot of experience over the years, flying and maintaining this machine”, says Tomaňa while just outside the squadron building, preparations for the first sorties of the day are ongoing. Usually during this time of year, an old, truck mounted L-29 Delfin engine is used to clear the runway of ice. Now it is used for clearing the apron of Sahara sand.
The 211 squadron consists of 127 professionals, including 17 qualified Gripen pilots. A further five Czech Gripen pilots are stationed elsewhere – like with the general staff in Prague. 211’s mission is to protect the airspace of the Czech Republic and its NATO allies. Tomaňa: “We have two aircraft on a constant Quick Reaction Alert or QRA, ready to be in the air within 15 minutes. A third aircraft is on standby. This puts quite a lot of stress on the rest of the fleet. Usually we have seven to eight aircraft ready to fly, including those on QRA. The other 4 to 5 aircraft are available for our regular flying program, which should give each pilot 120 hours in the air yearly. They also spend another 40 hours on the simulator.”
But the most fun part is spending time up high above the Czech countryside, practising defensive counter air (DCA) or offensive counter air (OCA) manoeuvres. Sometimes, a bit of dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) is needed, with L-159 ALCAs acting as opponents, or even better, German EF2000 Eurofighters. Tomaňa: “We occasionally meet up with them somewhere over Germany, because the temporarily reserved airspaces (TRAs) over our country are somewhat limited. It’s good training, and despite the Typhoons better thrust-to-weight ratio, our Gripen performs well. Its smaller size is an advantage in close range air combat. I’m not afraid of the Typhoon”, smiles the squadron boss.
Hooking up with various tankers such as French C-135s or a Swedish tanker C-130 equipped with an in-flight refueling system, is another thing that keeps 211 squadron busy. Fueling up in mid-air requires careful planning and a lot of verification and certification before hook-ups can actually take place.
“It involves a serious amount of work, as tankers are high value assets in peacetime as well”, says Tomaňa, who himself was actually the first Czech pilot ever to perform air-to-air refueling (AAR). “We have to be creative in our planning. For example, last year we flew several AAR-sorties with a Swedish Hercules that visited a Czech airshow. The French tankers we usually meet over France, making these 3.5 hour missions the longest we fly. If along the way we have to land somewhere, it’s no problem because our pilots know how to cross service their own aircraft. It’s a perfect example of the flexibility of Saab Gripen.”
During the traditional Tiger Meet, the yearly gathering of NATO member squadrons that fly the big cat emblem, the Czechs show their flexibility even more. In 2010, number 211 squadron became a full member and immediately took home the silver trophy for best overall tiger squadron. Next June, the Czech will meet their fellow tigers at Schleswig-Jagel in northern Germany. In the not-to-distant future, Czech Gripen pilots will further enhance their performance during these large scale exercise with the addition of real-time data exchange option Link 16.
Thoughts of organizing a Tiger Meet back home at Čáslav are cut short by a lack of funds. Major Tomaňa: “Our resources don’t allow this, but we have come up with a innovative alternative in the shape of a virtual Tiger Meet. This exercise was first held last autumn and proved to be very successful.” Several Tiger squadrons sent delegations to LOM Praha‘s hi-tech Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC) in Pardubice, where pilots and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) operators practised tactical simulations with the help of eight interlinked cockpit simulators and two GCI stations. The TSC provides full NATO standard briefing and debriefing facilities.
During AIRheads↑FLY’s visit at Čáslav, the daily program had several training flights, a tango (training) scramble – with squadron boss Tomaňa himself taking part – and a display practice for the upcoming airshow season. “We have a busy schedule this year. Apart from the QRA task here at Čáslav, we will take on the Iceland Air Policing mission in the second half of 2014. That means running two QRA operations at a time, stretching our resources. In 2016 we will provide the Iceland Air Policing mission once more. We are also planning the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2019, like we did in 2009 and 2012.”
Gripen User Group
Besides the Czech meeting NATO obligations, they contribute to the Gripen User Group (GuG). This co-operation of air forces currently flying the JAS 39 fighter is aimed at sharing logistics and experiences. The GuG’s member nations are Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. The number of flying hours give the Czech an experience advantage, which they share with the other Gripen users.
The Saab aircraft is bound to serve the Czech Air Force for another 14 years, although finalization of the lease extension has been delayed somewhat by a change of government. Major Tomaňa is confident: “It’s a matter of time. The Gripen was and still is the best choice for our country.”