Rescuing people from the icy waters of Scandinavia with the winch on the new NH90 helicopter is not so easy, the Swedish Armed Forces discovered during tests the last few months. Unless there is sufficient crew on board, the risk of the winch cable damaging the helicopter is a serious concern.
Currently the winch operator has to hold wire away from the chopper by hand or foot, with another crew member holding him safe. Once out on a real operation there may that person, with the two pilots/navigators in the front and the diver in the water. But technicians of the Swedish Armed Forces (Försvarsmakten) and the Third Helicopter Squadron (Tredje helikopterskvadronen) think that with some additional equipment it may work.
The maritime version of the HKP14 (Helikopter 14) – as the NH90 is dubbed in Swedish military service – will be on the forefront of submarine hunting in the near future. Sweden lost serious airborne capacity when the Boeing-Vertol/Kawasaki HKP4 (model 107, CH-46 in USMC service) was decommissioned in 2011. HKP14 field tests as underwater reconnaissance asset with dipping sonar is planned for 2016.
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.”
The European-made NHIndustries NH90 is the star of the newest military capability of Australia, where the type dubbed MRH-90 Taipan, is a major part of the Amphibious Ready Element (ARE). The expeditionary unit is now prepping for an important series of exercises lasting several months and that will give the ARE operational readiness status by October this year.
This week crews and support personnel of the Royal Australian Army’s 16th Aviation Brigade were prepping their MRH-90s together with the 2nd Battalion and the Royal Australian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier (landing helicopter dock) HMAS Canberra. Location of the operations: the waters off the North Queensland coast.
The Amphibious Ready Element includes a force of 900 Australian Defence Force and other Government personnel, supported by four MRH-90 helicopters embarked on the Canberra. The Sea Series of exercises will will enable the amphibious force to achieve an interim operational status, meaning limited combat and full humanitarian disaster response capability.
The main goal of the current exercises is to have all units and personnel combined learn how to operate as one force, with focussing on putting ground forces on a beach with both the MRH-90s as well as landing craft and to control a larger area beachhead.
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.
After conversations with leading NHIndustries partner Airbus Helicopters the German Armed Forces put their NH90 helicopters back on duty, according to a written message Airheadsfly.com received from Airbus Helicopters on 23 February 2015. The Bundeswehr confirmed the statement.
Germany stopped routine flying operations with its NH90 helicopters on 6 February, after an apparent design flaw was found in the Overhead Control Panel (OHCP) in the cockpit that could lead to a short circuit and engine trouble. A major incident happened in Uzbekistan last year, when an engine exploded during a medevac flight. Back home the OHCP caused trouble at least on three or four separate occasions, according to Bundeswehr reports leaked to the German press.
Airbus Helicopters was quick in asking Berlin to return the helos back to flight status. The Bundeswehr has now complied: “The needed technical improvements to take away the fault have been developed by the manufacturer, but the implementation of the constructive change to all affected NH90s has not been executed yet.”
One of several adaptations in operational procedures is that the crew will vent before every engine start to prevent damage from occurring. “With that the risk of engine problems and related malfunctioning in the OHCP can be minimized,” the Bundeswehr states. With a permanent solution awaiting, the German Armed Forces leadership has regained enough confidence to clear the NH90s for normal flying operations. Other NH90 users might use venting-before-start as well to prevent worse.