Supporting the ADF's Helicopter Fleet

The goal of the Australian Defence Force’s [ADFs] Project AIR 9000 is to plan a ‘rotary wing roadmap’ for the future and as such, aims to replace legacy Army and Navy fleets to satisfy projected operational requirements.

6th May 2009

Supporting the ADF’s Helicopter Fleet

The goal of the Australian Defence Force’s [ADFs] Project AIR 9000 is to plan a ‘rotary wing roadmap’ for the future and as such, aims to replace legacy Army and Navy fleets to satisfy projected operational requirements.

To support this plan, original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] and local industry alike see opportunities not just in the supply of platforms, but also in the through-life support over, what is hopefully, many years of operation.  However, another of AIR 9000s stated aims is to rationalise the number of helicopter types flown by the two services.  On the face of it, this might well see the number of OEMs reduce, but industry coalitions that form to bid for support contracts may balance this out to some degree.


Military helicopters have been supported in Australia since the first Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly arrived by sea in September 1947.  Technical representatives from Sikorsky were on hand to assist the Royal Australian Air Force [RAAF] with the assembly and testing of the helicopter.
In the early 1950’s, the Royal Australian Navy [RAN] Fleet Air Arm purchased Bristol Sycamores for search and rescue work from the aircraft carriers, HMAS Sydney and HMS Vengeance.  These helicopters were supported in Australia to their retirement over a decade later by Bristol Aviation Services at Bankstown, and later by Fairey Aviation at the same location.  The same companies also supported two RAAF Sycamores over a similar period.

The RAAF purchase of the Bell UH-1B Iroquois in the early 1960s began an association with Bell Helicopters that would continue for many years.  RAAF (and later Army) Iroquois and Sioux and Kiowa helicopters were overhauled and supported by the Australian subsidiary of Bell from a facility at the old Brisbane airport.  Originally known as Helicopter Sales and later Bell Helicopter Australia, it became Helitech Industries in the late 1980s, and is today owned by the Sikorsky Corporation.  It still supports Army Kiowas from its Pinkenba facility.
The Bell 206B-1 Kiowa entered service with the Australian Army Aviation Corps in the early 1970s.  The first dozen or so were assembled by Bell Helicopters Brisbane and the remainder by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation [CAC] at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne.  In all, 56 Kiowas were completed in Australia, for both the Army and RAN.  The final Kiowa (actually built as a civilian JetRanger under a still-born venture by CAC) was delivered in 1977 and the 44 assembled by CAC, in terms of numbers produced, represents the largest Australian helicopter assembly programme to date. 

In the early 1980s, two dozen Aerospatiale (now Eurocopter) AS350B Ecureuils were ordered by the RAAF and RAN to replace the by-then elderly UH-1B and C model Iroquois in training and Search and Rescue roles.  These helicopters have been overhauled and supported by the manufacturer ever since – including the upgrade of surviving examples to AS350BA standard a decade later.  Today the thirteen remaining aircraft are all with the RAN and supported by Eurocopter subsidiary Australian Aerospace.

Later the 1980s, the Sikorsky Black Hawk and Seahawk were selected to supplant RAAF UH-1H Iroquois and Navy Sea King and Wessex helicopters respectively.  A total of 39 Black Hawks were purchased, with 37 being produced by Hawker De Havilland at Bankstown.  The company was also contracted to assemble 14 of the 16 Navy Seahawks, but in the event they were completed by Aerospace Technologies of Australia at Avalon, South of Melbourne. 

Industry Support

The ADF currently has nine different types of helicopter, either in or just entering service, and their support has provided many opportunities to industry over the years.  As noted, AIR 9000 might well see this total reduce somewhat in time to come, and major aerospace companies with a presence in the local marketplace are keen to lock-in contracts for support beyond the initial acquisition phase of any new platform.

One of the more lucrative propositions awaiting the green light from the forthcoming Defence White Paper is the project to supply a rotary wing training package to the ADF to replace the present Army and Navy training schemes.  Phase 7 of AIR 9000 is also known as the Helicopter Aircrew Training System [HATS], and aims to replace the Kiowa and Ecureuil with a single twin-engine/glass cockpit helicopter type sometime in the next decade.

HATS is more than just a helicopter acquisition programme, but it will deliver a complete training system to the ADF in much the same way that Project AIR 5428 will realise an integrated fixed wing training package in a broadly similar timeframe.  By necessity, the two projects are being run sympathetically, and this then opens up many further industry opportunities, as OEMs and support service providers team with training systems integrators, simulator manufacturers and the like.

It is quite possible therefore that, although the number of helicopter types is likely to fall as AIR 9000 meets its objectives, OEM support is being increasingly replaced by industry coalitions.  Traditionally, industry support has been largely performed by the OEMs, or their local subsidiaries, but this has changed somewhat in recent times as businesses are restructured and partnerships formed to offer integrated packages to the customer.

Arguably one of the first major shifts towards this form of support was structured by Kaman, who put together an industry team to support the ill-fated SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite – then on order for the RAN.  Much has been written about the Seasprite programme, and it is beyond the scope of this article to cover that ground again.  However, it is worth looking at the industry model that would have supported the helicopter had it entered service with the Navy.

Kaman oversaw the construction of a purpose-built support centre in the Albatross Aviation Technology Park adjacent to the Nowra naval base, known as the “Kaman International Aerospace Support Centre.”  The facility housed subcontractors, such as Scientific Management Associates, who managed the integrated logistics support services (including training); Safe Air Limited, who reassembled and maintained the aircraft; and CSC, who provided software support.  Sadly, this facility was not used for its intended purpose for very long because the entire programme was cancelled by the Rudd government shortly after it gained office.  However, as these words are written, there is a proposal by BAE Systems Australia to re-invigorate the complex in order to support future maintenance of the RAN’s existing Seahawk fleet.  

Australian Aerospace

Australian Aerospace is a subsidiary of Eurocopter (itself a subsidiary of EADS) and as such, has a large footprint in Australia.  It has its headquarters at Bankstown in Sydney’s West, but has manufacturing and support facilities in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, Northern Territory and New Zealand.

The company employs over 600 people throughout Australia and is, at the present time, the only company manufacturing helicopters in the country.  At the time of writing, it had delivered 13 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters [ARH] and five NH 90 Multi-Role Helicopters [MRH 90], to the Commonwealth out of orders for 22 and 46 respectively. 

Having won the contract to supply the Tiger to the Army under Project AIR 87 in 2003, Australian Aerospace built a new facility in the Brisbane Airport precinct at Pinkenba.  It was later expanded for MRH 90 production, and the company assembles three EC120B Colibri helicopters for the civil market, with the capacity to increase this to two per month, if required.  The facility also houses the Defence Materiel Organization Tiger and MRH 90 Project Offices in a separate, but necessarily intimate area.  This innovative idea has worked to the advantage of both parties and has been credited with the satisfactory resolution of programme difficulties to date.  In addition, Australian Aerospace is building a Composites facility nearby that will provide future support for its helicopter line and throughout the wider industry, such as a current bid to provide vertical tails for the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter project.

Australian Aerospace is teamed with Kellogg Brown & Root [KBR] and the Commonwealth for an ARH training system at the Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, and with Thales for both ARH and MRH simulators.  As the prime contractor for synthetic training, it has developed an extensive training centre at Oakey and is in the process of building a similar, but smaller centre at Robertson Barracks near Darwin.  KBR provide courseware development services for Tiger training and Thales is on contract for training systems maintenance.
Similar facilities are being developed in Townsville for MRH 90 support, as the company is prime-contractor for the long-term Through-Life Support for both helicopters, including second-level and higher support (deeper maintenance) for both Tiger and MRH 90 at Townsville, Oakey and Darwin.

Engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce Turbomeca signed a five-year contract (with five-year follow-on option) with Australian Aerospace at the recent Avalon Airshow for TLS of the MRH’s RTM332-01/9 engine.  A similar agreement was signed to cover the RTM332s of the Tiger fleet last year.  Under both agreements, it will provide technical, logistics and supply services for the engines, which will be overhauled by Turbomeca Australia at Bankstown.

BAE Systems Australia

BAE Systems Australia is the largest defence contractor in Australia, employing over 6,500 people at more than 50 sites around the country.  The Rotary Wing Support arm of the business has its headquarters at RAAF base, Williamtown in NSW.
At the present time, it is responsible for the deeper maintenance of the Army’s Black Hawks and Chinooks, and specialist support to the 5th Aviation Regiment, at Townsville.  Historically, via subsidiary Hunter Aerospace, it also performed similar work on the UH-1H Iroquois fleet until their retirement in December 2007.

The company has been also been carrying out deeper maintenance of the Navy Seahawks at Nowra since 1993, and with Tenix Aerospace teamed to carry out the installation of a forward looking infra red and electronic warfare self-protection systems under  Project SEA 1405.  In 2008, the company acquired the Tenix Corporation and its interests.

As noted above, BAE Systems Australia plans to re-establish a helicopter support capability at the Albatross Air Park at Nowra, should it secure the upcoming contract for Seahawk maintenance and support.  Until now, contractual requirements have meant that all such work is performed on-base at HMAS Albatross.  If successful, the company will be teamed with Raytheon Australia, Rosebank Engineering and Asia Pacific Aerospace and Air Affairs, as the Seahawk Support Team.

Boeing Defence Australia

Boeing Defence Australia is the newly reorganised Australian arm of Boeing Integrated Defence Systems, and takes over the defence interests of what was Boeing Australia Limited.  It currently has 2,300 employees at 14 locations throughout Australia, but the drawdown of some of its fixed-wing support work will see this number contract significantly in the near-term.

As OEM of the Army’s six CH-47D Chinooks, it provides engineering, training and logistical support to the 5th Aviation Regiment at Townsville.  The parent company is presently negotiating the sale of seven new CH-47Fs to the Commonwealth at the time of writing, but no Australian Industry Participation details have been made public.

The company is under contract to supply flight and maintenance training to the Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, as well as maintenance and support services for Black Hawks and Kiowas at that base.  A “full-suite” of flying and maintenance training for the two types is undertaken, in addition to the management and delivery of loadmaster training and provision of a Search and Rescue capability.  To carry out the latter, Boeing utilises civilian Bell 412 helicopter.

Boeing Defence Australia is also teamed with AgustaWestland to offer the latter’s A109 platform in the HATS competition.  The two companies signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the bid at last year’s Singapore Airshow.  


Although fully-owned by Sikorsky Aircraft Australia Limited, Helitech supports both Sikorsky and Bell helicopters in Australia, and also in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.  The company is based in Brisbane, but has a facility in Auckland, and employs over 200 people.
As noted earlier, Helitech is responsible for Kiowa deeper maintenance and support and the provision of manpower and logistics support services to the Army, but the company also offers repair maintenance and overhaul, spare parts warehousing and distribution, design engineering, technical training, aircraft sales and contract support services throughout Australia.

Raytheon Australia

As one of Australia’s leading Mission Systems integrators, Canberra-based Raytheon Australia employs over 1,300 people across Australia, and is partnered with several companies supporting ADF rotary-wing operations:  Notably Australian Aerospace on the Tiger testing programme and BAE Systems Australia on the Seahawk. 

In addition to these strategic partnerships, Raytheon is a major player in the ADF’s AIR 5428 pilot training system competition via its Aerospace Training Solutions division, and therefore has an interest in HATS as a training system provider. 

Before the Seasprite programme was cancelled, delays to service introduction led to a requirement for a short-term, multi-engine IFR helicopter capability to provide continuation training to crews posted in to man the squadron.  Raytheon Australia signed a $24 million contract with the Commonwealth in December 2006, for the supply of three AgustaWestland A109E Power helicopters to fulfil this requirement.
The four year contract is a fully ‘turn-key’ operation, which supplies 1,500 flying hours per year to the Navy and known as the ‘Retention and Motivation Initiative.’  The three helicopters are operated by naval crews from 723 Squadron at Nowra, but maintained by Raytheon in conjunction with local company Heliflite.

Future Opportunities

Aside from the AIR 9000 Phase 7 (HATS) opportunities previously described, near-term work might come from the CH-47F purchase that is now subject to approval by US Congress, and beyond that there is the possibility that Phase 8, currently planned for the second half of the next decade, will be brought forward.  This latter programme aims to replace the Seahawk and battlelines have already been drawn between Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin offering the MH-60R Seahawk and Australian Aerospace/Eurocopter with the Naval Frigate Helicopter version of the NH 90.  If Phase 8 does not go ahead in the immediate future, then a form of Seahawk Mid Life Upgrade (Phase 3) is likely and this will also lead to further opportunities.

Aside from the uncertainty of the forthcoming Defence White Paper, the global economic downturn may influence any or all of the programmes discussed.  However, what is certain is that current operational tempos will require the existing fleet to be supported at the same levels (at least) until well into the future. 

APDR at a glance