The Royal Air Force’s fleet of modernized Puma helicopters reached the 10,000 flight hour mark recently. Under the direction of the Puma Life Extension Programme, a landmark in fleet renewal programs, the helicopters were upgraded to new-generation standards and are now operating in the UK and on overseas deployments.
In 2008, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) was faced with a perfect storm: a financial crisis rocked the world just when budget constraints and the high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan were placing a heavy toll on the U.K.’s military rotary wing fleet. At the same time, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) aging AS330 Puma helicopters were set to go out of service. With few alternatives to replace them, retiring the Puma fleet put the nation’s rotary wing capability into a vulnerable position.
Airbus Helicopters approached the British with a proposal for a Puma upgrade that would cost significantly less than investing in a new fleet and which could be delivered in less time: the Puma Life Extension Programme (LEP). This proposal involved carrying out a major retrofit of the RAF’s Puma AS330 BA helicopters that would equip the aircraft with modern 21st Century capabilities. “The British MoD was one of the first defence organisations to consider the significant upgrade of older aircraft rather than buying new,” says Ian Morris, Head of Defence for Airbus Helicopters U.K. “In terms of providing a cost effective solution, their decision, which had many detractors, could be described as visionary.”
Airbus Helicopters Romania
Out of a total of 24 helicopters, an initial four were sent to Airbus Helicopters’ headquarters in Marignane, France to aid in the design, early upgrade and flight-testing of a prototype. The remaining 20 Pumas were sent to Airbus Helicopters Romania and upgraded according to the French design specifications. “A crucial aspect of this program was that Romania had both built and maintained more AS330s than anyone else in the world,” says Simon Heath, program manager for the Puma LEP. “
The helicopters then returned to Airbus Helicopters U.K. for final completion and installation of U.K. specific avionics. The first deliveries were made to the RAF in 2012; all 24 are now in the Air Force’s hands.
Fight the aircraft
The advantages over the older model are myriad. “When we stripped all the wiring out and put in modern avionics, we saved about 250 kilograms. We replaced that with additional fuel carrying capacity,” says Heath. A fifth fuel tank was coupled with a 25 percent reduction in fuel consumption, thanks to two new Makila 1A1 engines, leading to a considerably increased operating range and nearly double the payload. The more powerful engines mean the Puma has an increased maximum all-up mass, offering more disposable mass, which can be delivered in the most demanding of environmental conditions for use in either fuel or troops. Safety is also significantly enhanced with advanced avionics, and the latest 4 axis digital autopilot, which allows for ‘carefree handling’ to free up the pilot’s capacity to ‘fight the aircraft’ more effectively. The on-board systems are effective in allowing operations to continue safely in limited visibility conditions such as ‘brown outs’ during desert landings.
In a relatively short time frame, the Puma 2s began operations, thanks in large part to the partnership between the MoD, the RAF and Airbus Helicopters. Working in close cooperation to cover all operational requirements, the manufacturer was instrumental in helping the Ministry achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the Puma 2 fleet in February 2015. Together with Airbus Helicopters Romania and Vector Aerospace, a team working at RAF Benson completed modifications and maintenance. Three weeks later, ahead of schedule and to cost, the Puma 2s were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Toral, NATO’s training and support mission.
It quickly became the backbone of the UK’s Afghan operations; to date, shortly after achieving Full Operating Capability in January 2016, the RAF now has flown over 10,000 flight hours in the upgraded Pumas. “The abiding comment you get about the Puma 2 from the crews is that it’s ‘awesome’,” says Heath.
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image: A RAF Puma HC1 at Royal International Air Tattoo 2009 (Image (PD) Adrian Pingstone)