Keeping Them Flying and Effective

This is an article published in our November 2017 Issue.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has replaced its old Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawks for modern MH-60R helicopters. The US Department’s Defense Security and Cooperation Agency (DSCA) recently approved a $360 million, ten-year FMS upgrade for the RAN’s 24 strong MH-60R fleet. (Photo: Australian Department of Defence)

New helicopters, to maintain effectiveness, need a planned upgrade path – something that the Royal Australian Navy is addressing early. Older aircraft may swap owners, or get a new lease of life where none seemed to exist.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has now found a helicopter in the Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo that it is not only happy with, but wishes to ensure the capability is kept in step with the US Navy and is therefore taking measures for the fleet to be continually upgraded over the next decade.

On 31 August the US State Department’s Defense Security and Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the confirmation of a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) upgrade programme for the RAN’s 24 MH-60Rs at an estimated cost of $360 million.

The RAN’s 725 Squadron based at HMAS Albatross, Nowra, New South Wales, is the training unit flying eleven of the MH-60Rs, while operational flying is the responsibility of 816 Squadron whose 17 aircraft primarily operates from the RAN’s Adelaide and Anzac class frigates in the anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare (ASW/ASuW) role. The helicopter’s weapons systems include Raytheon Mk.54 Lightweight Hybrid Torpedo and Lockheed-Martin AGM-114N Hellfire air-to-ground missile.

The Australian Government acquired the MH-60R under the $2.34 billion Air 9000 Phase 8 programme with the intent that it be as close to US Navy MH-60Rs as such an FMS contract would allow. Aircrew and maintainers were sent to the US Navy training base, Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville in Florida for their conversion to type training. The RAN had operated the older Sikorsky S-70B-2 until its newer replacement arrived.

The wide ranging upgrades cover operational capability as well as any advances made to the training regime. This includes Engineering Change Proposals (ECPs) for both the aircraft and associated training devices, classified software upgrades for Joint Mission Planning Systems (JMPS/MDLs), engineering and technical assistance (ETA/LTA) as well as other supply and logistical support.

Old to New – Part One

The exit from service of the UK’s Sea King fleet in 2016 brought an immediate benefit to the Pakistan Navy through the quick acquisition of seven of iconic aircraft. Following a formal handover ceremony on 24 May by the UK MoD’s Disposal Services Authority (DSA) to the Pakistan Navy at Fleetlands in Gosport, attended by the Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK, Syed Ibne Abbas, and Bob Richardson from the DSA, the helicopters were received by the international maintenance specialist Vector Aerospace (UK).

The UK Ministry of Defence may have retired its Sea Kings, but the Pakistan Navy saw an opportunity to acquire seven of those helicopters, putting them throught the experienced hands of Vector Aerospace to bring them back to flying status. (Photo: Vector Aerosapace)

Only three of the (ex-Westland) Sea Kings will be returned to flight status, with the others being stripped down for parts. The work was the responsibility of Vector’s UK-based Aviation Services team, which knows the aircraft very well having previously provided depth maintenance and repair for the UK’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Sea King fleets.

Talking about the opportunity presented to Vector to once again provide MRO services to three of the Sea Kings that have visited Fleetlands over the years, Owen McClave, managing director for Vector Aerospace UK, said: “Vector has a long history of supporting the Sea King fleet, and we are delighted that this significant programme to refurbish these aircraft for return to service has now started. We are very proud of the responsive maintenance support provided by our skilled associates here at Fleetlands, and we look forward to seeing these aircraft back in service with their new owner later in the year.”

Old to New – Part Two

Exhibiting a thirst for even greater longevity, it can be safely said that there aren’t many military helicopter fleets older than the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAFs) Sikorsky S-61 Nuris that are not only still flying. However, following the successful upgrade of one of its number the RMAF fleet may now be open to an upgrade that could extend the out-of-service date of some, if not all Nuris to the mid-2020s.

The first of 10 initial Sikorsky S-61s, designated Nuri by the RMAF, arrived into Malaysia during late 1967. Since then the whole fleet of around 26 helicopters has flown many thousands of hours to the point where the aircraft have been scheduled to go out-of-service on several occasions. Most are operated by the RMAF but around 11 were transferred to the Malaysian Army. A new type was even sought in 2008 although financially the government was not able to acquire a brand new type of helicopter to take over, so the Nuris remained in service.

No sunset yet for the S-61 Nuri. A Royal Malaysian Air Force S-61A-4 Nuri utility helicopter leads the way during a joint search and rescue exercise a few years ago. The S-61 Nuris are being given a new lease of life thanks to a modernisation conducted by Airod in Malaysia. (Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Matt Summers)

The S-61s are divided between two squadrons, No. 3 Squadron at Butterworth Air Force Base (AFB) in western Malaysia and No. 7 Squadron at Kuching AFB in the east of the country. The helicopter fleet’s main roles have been military transport as well as search and rescue.

However, now it seems that the out-of-service date could be pushed back again and the aircraft handed a new lease of life by Malaysian aviation company Airod. The upgrade to the first Sikorsky S-61A-4 Nuri focused on transforming the analogue avionics into a digital glass cockpit which would include a new moving map. To achieve this, Airod’s conducted the work at its Subang, Selangor, facility with technology transfer being made possible through its technical partner Heli-One of Norway.

The first aircraft was handed over by Airod Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Major General (Rtd) Datuk Ibrahim Bahari to RMAF chief General Datuk Seri Affendi Buang in March at the Langkawi airshow.

The RMAF have given Airod a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the work completed on the first Nuri upgrade which, reports state, took less than a year to complete.

A ceremony was staged on 17 September to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the S-61 Nuri with the RMAF. It was attended by Malaysian Chief of Air Force, General Tan Sri Dato Sri Hj Affendi bin Buang, together with a variety of RMAF helicopter crew members.

“We are honoured to celebrate the golden anniversary of the S-61 Nuri with the Royal Malaysian Air Force, and commemorate 50 years of continuous service of the well-established and proven platform in a variety of roles,” said Christophe Nurit, regional executive for Sikorsky in Asia.

At the end of 2016, the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) revealed that it was increasing its fleet of Airbus H225M Caracal’s (ex EC725s) with an order for an additional two helicopters. The twin-engine, 11-ton H225Ms are operated by several air forces in the region including the RMAF and Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara, or TNI–AU).

The four Airbus M225s delivered to date have got a variety of features including electro-optical sensor, fast roping and search light applicable for a variety of role from general combat search and rescue through to civil rescue and ordinary troop transportation. Airbus state that two Caracal’s from the first order are still to be delivered by the end of the year, which will eventually make a fleet of eight aircraft when the final two are delivered in 2019.

Philippe Monteux, head of Airbus’ Southeast Asia and Pacific region said that the contract “marks the great confidence the RTAF has placed in the EC725 and its proven capabilities to fulfil its most challenging missions.”

During the summer, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Safran Helicopter Engines and Thai Aviation Industries (TAI) to support helicopter engines operated by the Thai armed forces.

The Airbus H225M has been acquired by the Thai Armed Forces, and a new contract with Safran will guarantee engine support and aircraft availability. (Photo: Airbus)

The MoU, signed on 20 June, is an extension of an earlier global support agreement and means that Safran will support the Makila-powered H225M Caracal and Arriel-powered fleet of H125M, H145M, AS365 N3+ and H155 helicopters that are used by both the RTAF and other military and government users.

According to a statement from Safran, “the agreement will deliver guaranteed engine availability, including engine line maintenance, depot repair, inventory management and technical support expertise.” This will principally be delivered by TAI backed by Safran support.

Other upgrade related military helicopter news this year included an announcement by Elbit Systems that it had won a $110 million contract from an undisclosed country within the Asia-Pacific region that would see it maintain and upgrade ‘dozens’ of Mi-17 helicopters over a five-year period. No details of the contract or the customer were revealed.

by Andrew Drwiega