The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) began receiving Bell 47G Sioux helicopters in 1965, along with Bell UH-1 Iroquois a year later at the height of the Vietnam War.

28th Feb 2013

 New Zealand


Byline: Gordon Arthur / Ohakea


The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) began receiving Bell 47G Sioux helicopters in 1965, along with Bell UH-1 Iroquois a year later at the height of the Vietnam War. Understandably, nobody could accuse the air force of not gaining maximum mileage from these venerable assets! While the former discontinued flying in New Zealand in 2011, the Huey fleet soldiers on whilst awaiting full introduction of two new helicopter types. These are the AgustaWestland A109LUH and NHIndustries NH90, which together will deliver improved capability to the service. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter visited RNZAF Base Ohakea in the lower North Island in mid-January to get an update on the status of these two important new platforms.

Helicopter Transition Unit
While these helicopters are Ministry of Defence (MoD) acquisitions, the RNZAF is responsible for their introduction into service (IIS) and operational test and evaluation (OT&E). The Helicopter Transition Unit (HTU) was created to help manage their introduction, in particular to separate the IIS from ongoing operational output delivery by the Iroquois of No 3 Squadron. APDR spoke to the commanding officer (CO) of the HTU, Wing Commander Shaun Sexton, in an exclusive interview at Ohakea. He assumed command of the HTU in October 2010. “By establishing the HTU we felt that the introduction to service could take a cleaner sheet of paper – but not blank – and the output could remain unfettered by the introduction, because of course the output has to carry on. Increasingly the new aircraft are able to undertake a small amount of output in parallel with 3 SQN. We’ve flown the NH90 for about a year and the A109 for two years.” The HTU is a temporary formation and will be disbanded once milestone capability levels are reached. There are currently about 100 personnel in the HTU.

To go along with the two new craft, the air force constructed a new helicopter hangar facility at Ohakea. Prime Minister John Key opened the new purpose-built facility for No 3 Squadron on 13 May 2011. The squadron’s existing hangars date back to the 1940s. The Huey fleet has been gradually drawing down over the past couple of years, and it currently consists of ten aircraft. However, this current level will continue for a couple of years until the NH90 and A109 get up to speed and reach minimum output level. The Iroquois is slated to be withdrawn in the second half of 2014.

A contract for five platforms and a simulator was signed by the NZ government on 8 May 2008 after the Italian design was successful in a competitive tender. The A109 is a long overdue replacement for the Sioux and it serves in both the training role for pilots moving on to the NH90 and SH-2G Seasprite, as well as a light utility platform able to ferry passengers or cargo. Along with military light utility tasks, it may be tasked to support government agencies such as the NZ Police, NZ Customs, Ministry of Fisheries, and Department of Conservation too.

An initial phase of consolidation flying is complete, as is a phase of capability development and a period of independent test, evaluation and validation. “It’s been a careful process from the start, building the foundational blocks so that the more complex work can occur subsequently to reach the output state,” explained WGCDR Sexton. The RNZAF has released to service some capabilities and limited parallel output flying is occurring with the Hueys - though this is “very low at the moment”. In September 2011, the first interim-type certificate was issued to allow the A109 to perform duties such as general passenger and cargo carriage.

The twin-engine Finmeccanica design features a modern glass cockpit plus retractable undercarriage. There was obvious logic in acquiring the A109 as the cockpit with its multi-function displays, four-axis autopilot and flight management system provide a crucial training stepping stone to the more sophisticated NH90. Obviously, it would have been impossible for the Sioux to serve as a midway transition for pilots hoping to fly the NH90 – such a gap would have been unbridgeable! With a maximum take-off weight of 3,175kg, the Italian-manufactured craft is not large; the cabin accommodates a maximum of six passengers in addition to the crew.

An interesting acquisition decision was to obtain an attrition airframe that could be torn down for spare parts. APDR asked whether this was wise. “Yes, it gave us components that weren’t available for acquisition directly, and of course it gives us the option to reconstitute an airframe should we ever wish to, either to grow the fleet or replace an aircraft. It’s a good decision on a number of levels.” This tightly wrapped frame is stored in the hangar alongside active helicopters.

NZ craft feature a rescue hoist capable of lifting two people at a time, and a cargo hook can lift 600kg. The Sioux could perform neither of these tasks. Proffering his personal opinion, Sexton thought the A109 offered a lot of value in the light observation role too, although at present no electro-optical device is fitted. “I think it’s a likely growth path for the aircraft, and if we look at the Australasian region, with the Aussies taking the Kiowa out of service, it seems there’s a bit of a gap there for that light observation role.” Certainly the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) is too potent to send to a Timor-Leste or Solomon Islands peacekeeping scenario.

There has been talk of arming the A109 with fixed forward-firing weapons, but personally WGCDR Sexton is not convinced this is a viable option, especially for the South Pacific missions envisaged for the craft.

For most of last year, the A109 performed primarily a training function. Since the fourth quarter, however, it has been in a capability development cycle focusing on advanced flying techniques (e.g. formation, mountain, low altitude and some tactical-application flying). This should lead to further release to service come the end of this year. WGCDR Sexton suggested it was likely the A109 would become a single-pilot platform once crew training and crew dynamics reached sufficient levels of maturity.

Military procurement programmes notoriously lag behind schedule, so how does the RNZAF stack up in this regard? The CO was honest: “It’s probably a little behind schedule, I guess. I have to admit it’s been a real learning path for us. I’d say that typically we underestimated the time required to fully introduce to service the systems.” Considering this is only the RNZAF’s second new helicopter type in the past 45 years, this comment is not surprising. A large amount of training courses and materials need developing, but the commander said personnel constraints were probably “the most limiting factor in the amount of work we have to do with the number of people we have available to do it.”

Five pilots trained on the A109 last year, with four being ex-Iroquois pilots and the fifth an ex-Seasprite flyer. Since the A109 will also train pilots for the navy-oriented Seasprites, it proved useful having such a pilot so the navy’s needs and aspirations could be factored into the programme development stage. Five crewmen have also been trained to date. Because crewmen could not train on the diminutive Sioux, rather relying on the Huey, this A109 capability is important for the RNZAF because it frees up the NH90 for outputs. “Crewmen are a critical enabler of the output, so we can train them on the 109 without tying up the NH90, and do winching and under-slung loads.”

An ab initio flight training course is scheduled to commence in March and it will essentially last a year. This is an important step as it will qualify pilots that have never flown or touched a helicopter before. Most type certification will be obtained before the course commences, while WGCDR Sexton expected the A109’s full capability to be reached in the second half of 2014.

WGCDR Sexton also gave APDR a tour of the Helicopter Synthetic Training Centre, colloquially known as the ‘Sim Building’, which opened on 13 May 2011. It contains an A109 Virtual Interactive Procedural Trainer (VIPT) that reached NZ shores in July 2009. The training system also includes a computer-based Part Task Trainer (PTT) and a full-motion simulator. The latter, based on a Swedish simulator design, achieved its first ‘flight’ on 7 June 2010. Ab initio trainees will perform approximately 50% of their training on this device, which will result in significant savings since operating the simulator costs about 10% of flying an actual aircraft.

The most recent Defence White Paper issued in 2010 stated the government was interested in acquiring three further A109 aircraft. However, no movement has occurred to bring this to fruition. The MoD’s Capability Branch told APDR: “Any decisions to invest in additional helicopters will be made after reviewing operation of the current fleet mix (NH90, A109 and Seasprite) and seeing if there remain any gaps to meet the future needs of the Defence Force.”

The Malaysian Army uses the same AgustaWestland type as NZ, and the RNZAF has hosted a couple of visits from them. It is believed Malaysia is interested in NZ’s simulator, for example.

The Iroquois fleet cannot foot it in terms of carrying capacity, self-protection, communications and navigation because the fleet never underwent a major upgrade. Especially in higher-threat environments overseas, the UH-1H is not such a viable option. Popular with troops, it achieved extremely high serviceability/availability rates in Timor-Leste in 1999-2002, and the squadron received an Australian Meritorious Unit Citation (MUC). Nevertheless, the Iroquois was constrained by its capabilities in the tropical climate. While the A109 will take over the lighter spectrum of the Iroquois’ current roles, its true successor is the NH90. The NH90 is a product of the NHIndustries consortium (32% AgustaWestland, 62.5% Eurocopter and 5.5% Fokker). In New Zealand’s case, the programme is managed by the Crown, with NHI as contractor and Eurocopter serving as customer interface. The government ordered eight craft on 31 July 2006 at a total cost of NZ $771 million, one-third of which constituted support and logistics. NHI delivered the first two NH90 TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) craft to the RNZAF embarked aboard an Antonov An-124 on 6 December 2011. Airframes ‘03’ and ‘04’ arrived in late 2012, so ‘01’ and ‘02’ have been the workhorses to date. The final four airframes will arrive this year in final configuration. “Once these are delivered, that will allow us to sequence and manage the retrofit of the four airframes we have in NZ at the moment. Plans are being finalised at the moment for the retrofit programme, which is likely to start about the third quarter this year,” elaborated the commander.

The NH90 will form the backbone of NZ’s rotary fleet for the next 30 years (based on experience with the Iroquois, it will probably be longer!). It is capable of sling-loading an army Pinzgauer Light Operational Vehicle (LOV). It is pertinent to point out the HTU learnt a lot of lessons from inducting the A109, and these have been translated to the NH90 IIS too. NZ did not request the associated Thales HMSD for night flying, but instead pilots use the NVS 9, the same aviator night vision goggles (NVG) operated on the Huey.

WGCDR Sexton stated the NH90 had been through its first phase of capability development evaluation. The first interim-type certificate for the aircraft was issued in February 2013, which allows the NH90 to carry passengers and cargo internally within NZ. “This is really a significant milestone for us,” he related.

An important question is whether the NH90 programme is behind schedule. The first certification came twelve months after flying started. “This is roughly in the magnitude of what we thought to get the type certificate done by the end of last year. But inevitably the holiday season starts to impact and we didn’t quite get there.” It should be noted the aircraft were delivered at least twelve months behind schedule, which threw the programme behind from the start. “As I said with the A109, we typically underestimated the volume of work from an Introduction Into Service perspective.” However, any assessment also depends on when milestones are taken from. From delivery date, the HTU is only about a month behind. From contract signature date, it is more than a year behind, something beyond the control of the RNZAF.

When will full operational capability be reached? “The key timeline, the long pole in the tent, is aircrew training. We have to get quite a lot of crews trained so it’s the end of 2015, I’d say, all going well. There’s still a lot to do in capability development that will be done concurrently, of course,” estimated the commander.

The NH90 has received stringent criticism in places like Germany. What about NZ’s experience? “In terms of how the aircraft has gone for us in the last twelve months, pretty well, actually. We’ve exceeded our planned flying in every month bar two by a significant margin.” The commander’s next words were of interest. “Admittedly we planned our flying rate conservatively based on international user experience with the helicopter. But the fact is that in some months we exceeded them by almost 100%, so it shows you the aircraft and our IIS are going well albeit at a considered pace.” At the time of APDR’s visit, the NH90 had flown 330 hours since delivery.

An important point to note is that the first four aircraft were delivered in an interim configuration that is basically the equivalent of Australia’s Product Base Line 03 (PBL 03). This was positive for NZ as its aircraft are at a much more mature state than what lead customers received. Thus they have not been subject to oil cooler fan problems, for example, as fixes were already in place. “A lot of the other snags and issues that countries have experienced have been ironed out, if not with technical solutions, at least with sufficient understanding to allow them to be managed and therefore the aircraft to be serviceable,” the wing commander pointed out.

As another instance, the floor robustness has not been an issue for the RNZAF as NHI offered an improved floor configuration with more cargo tie-downs. “At the moment we’re working with what we’ve got and it’s not causing any great impact.” One reason why the floor issue is not as significant to NZ is that the air force has traditionally used a load spreader on the compartment floor. This was done on the UH-1H where a plywood layer was put on the floor to protect against damage from passengers and cargo. A similar solution using a more advanced system of aluminium and compressed foam is being developed by the RNZAF for the NH90.

The other topical issue with the NH90 is its engines, especially after the Australian fleet was grounded after an engine exploded in mid-air. Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Ltd and NHI are working on technical solutions to avoid compressor deformation. In the meantime, the RNZAF has implemented measures such as venting the engines in accordance with NHI guidelines when certain parameters relating to turbine temperature and time since last start/shutdown are met. NZ has never had to ground its fleet, which is symptomatic of “the fact we’re far enough behind the early customers to understand and manage issues effectively.”

APDR heard rumours of avionics problems but WGCDR Sexton said, “I don’t have any particular awareness of these sorts of unplanned unserviceabilities beyond what I’d expect as reasonable with the NH90, or A109 for that matter.” He continued: “In the roughly 300 hours we’ve flown, we’ve only seen one or two instances of a possible global problem reports (PR) arising so it’s not like they’re happening all the time. Through education and training, the aircrew are able to manage PRs and other avionics faults when they do arise, typically without having to terminate the mission.”

The HTU has an aircrew transition course under way for ex-Huey airmen. This course is being run by the RNZAF but it contracts simulator training aspects to the AgustaWestland training academy run by Rotorsim in Italy. Eventually this training is expected to move to Australian Defence Force (ADF) full-flight simulators in Oakey and/or Townsville. Further consideration is being given to acquiring an indigenous device later this decade. The course has already qualified five crewmen and the training of four pilots is ongoing.

The NZ Defence Force (NZDF) is developing the ability to deploy a Joint Interagency Amphibious Task Force (JIATF) for regional operations and other exercises. Accordingly, deck-landing qualifications are an increasing requirement for RNZAF utility helicopter pilots, and much of this training will be done as part of A109 training and on the simulator. Up to four NH90s can be carried aboard HMNZS Canterbury, but much work remains to ready the NH90 for ship-borne operations. Reaching the capability of embarked operations in an amphibious tactical sealift scenario is still distant and it will involve a lot more development. The NH90 will be NZ’s primary deployment helicopter although there is some residual capacity for the A109. WGCDR Sexton: “Before they can take over from the Huey, we have to have the ability to deploy them overseas.”

A key advantage of the NH90 is interoperability with Australia, while other NH90 users are Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Spain and Sweden. The global user community is very strong. The RNZAF tries to collaborate and share information with other nations as much as possible. However, geographically, and because of the similar configuration to NZ craft, Australia remains the closest partner.

Amidst all the international criticism, one key question remains - is the NH90 the right platform for NZ? WGCDR Sexton tactfully replied, “I can say with confidence the aircraft is meeting our expectations at the moment. Of course, we’d like to have 100% serviceability. We’d like to have it perfect but that’s not a realistic expectation…You can’t expect to have a helicopter like this turn up and it goes exactly how you want it to go.” He summarised: “In terms of where it’s at now – happy! Do I think it’s the aircraft for New Zealand in the future? Yes, it’s fine. On one hand it’s not like there’s any choice, and on the other hand it’s an extremely capable helicopter. It’s not perfect – what aircraft is? – but it’s extremely capable.”


APDR at a glance