MRH-90 Performs Well in Maritime Trials

New platforms don’t always receive positive reports from pre-entry into service trials, but the new Eurocopter MRH-90 multi-role helicopter appears to have performed well so far.

14th Jan 2010

MRH-90 performs well in maritime trials

New platforms don’t always receive positive reports from pre-entry into service trials, but the new Eurocopter MRH-90 multi-role helicopter appears to have performed well so far.

Over October and November the MRH-90 conducted a series of maritime trials off the southern coast of Australia. The Nowra-based Aircraft Maintenance and Flight Trials Unit (AMAFTU) put the new helicopter through its paces in first of class flight trials to determine the limits at which it can operate at sea.

Australia has ordered 46 MRH-90s for the Army and Navy to replace the Army’s Black Hawk and Navy’s Sea King fleets, although only six helicopters are due for Navy service. The first two aircraft were accepted into service in Brisbane in December 2007. The first four helicopters were manufactured in France, while the remainder of the order is being assembled at Australian Aerospace’s facility in Brisbane. To date, eight helicopters – six for Army and two for Navy – have been delivered to the Commonwealth, says Australian Aerospace, with a further two scheduled by the end of 2009. Of these eight, four have been assembled in Brisbane.

For the trials two MRH-90s – 007 and 008 – embarked on RAN Landing Platform Auxiliary (LPA) HMAS Manoora on 23 October in Sydney. The ship sailed for the flight trials to waters south of Hobart, Tasmania, says the Department of Defence. Both helicopters disembarked to the Naval Air Station at Nowra in New South Wales on 20 November.

“The purpose of the flight test programme was to establish a safe operating envelope for the MRH-90 helicopter to take off and land on the three LPA helicopter landing spots by day and night,” says Defence. It adds: “Further tests confirmed the ability of the MRH-90 to safely transfer cargo to the ship by underslung load lifting and to transfer personnel by winch transfer. The testing was completed using an MRH-90 fitted with flight test instrumentation designed to measure aircraft performance, particularly power margins, as well as control positions.”

Although the flight test report is still being completed, Defence says that initial reports reveal no significant problems with operating the MRH-90 to the LPA. “The MRH-90 is designed for operation with ships and the performance in a range of sea conditions was positive,” the department adds.

During the trials, the manufacturer says MRH-90 007 and 008 achieved serviceability rates of 77 per cent. During 52.2 hours of flight time, they performed 520 trial-related evolutions simulating operations at sea, including takeoffs, landings, munitions transfers and weight load carries. They recorded more than 200 deck landings.

“The trials have been a great success,” says Dr Jens Goennemann, chief executive officer of Australian Aerospace. “There’s been very positive feedback about the MRH-90 from the pilots – especially its handling and the way the aircraft’s fly-by-wire control system reduces the pilot workload,” he adds.

Goennemann adds that the MANTIS deck handler proved itself during the trials and the manual blade-fold equipment manufactured and supplied for the sea trials performed well.

The trials also proved that the helicopter fits well into the ship’s onboard hangar, with the manufacturer saying it is much more stable in the bay than other helicopter types. As well as flight testing the MRH90 on LPA ships for embarked operations, the tests included a trial fit of the MRH90 into the hangar on an ANZAC class ship. Defence says: “This work is being analysed for the ability to conduct amphibious operations from the LPAs, and to conduct maintenance on the MRH90 helicopter in the hangar on the ANZAC should it ever be needed. The information will also be applied to the ongoing work by Defence to understand the ship interface issues for both potential contenders for AIR 9000 Phase 8.”

The helicopters which took part in the sea trials are now back in Townsville where they are being used for aircrew training.

Further embarked test programmes are planned over the next two years to establish MRH-90 operating envelopes with other ship classes, says Defence. Testing of the aircraft systems and role equipment will also continue for a range of mission activities, it adds.

The manufacturer says initial operational capability (IOC) for the Navy is on schedule for mid-2010, although Defence says that key factors affecting this milestone are the flying rate and completion of the planned training programme. Aircrew training has been delayed due to the low flying rate early in the programme, says the DoD. “The MRH-90 is a highly capable new technology system and many of the issues affecting the flying rate are reflective of the developmental stage of the aircraft. Industry and Defence have worked hard to address these issues and the flying rates have increased commensurately. Positive aircrew training outcomes are anticipated early in 2010,” Defence says.

The Army’s MRH-90 programme is suffering a delay, with Defence expecting IOC by October 2011 – a six months delay on the original schedule. “This [delay] is because of some early in-service issues involving spares availability and documentation. However, these issues have now been resolved and we are working towards recovering lost time,” says Australian Aerospace. Defence says the Army IOC schedule will also be impacted by the flying rate and achievement of the planned training programme.

Following the successful sea trials, the manufacturer is understandably pushing its NH90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) variant as the new naval combat helicopter for the Navy. The NH-90 is a customised version of the MRH-90, with the helicopters sharing 80 per cent commonality, according to the manufacturer.

The NH90 is a potential candidate to replace the Navy’s 16 Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawks and cancelled Kaman Aerospace Super Seasprites under Project Air 9000 Phase 8. Its competition for the contract for at least 24 new naval combat helicopters is the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R Romeo, which has recently been reported as being the favoured choice of Australian Defence Force chiefs.

First pass approval for the acquisition is scheduled for financial year 2009-10 to FY 2010-11, followed by a decision in FY2010-11 to FY2011-12 and IOC from 2014-16.

While the Romeo is the more mature platform, meets all essential requirements, will offer commonality with the US navy and costs less than its competitor, the NFH offers more capacity in some roles and has 80 per cent commonality in airframe and avionics as the MRH-90 – a stated aim of the ADF.

Australian Aerospace’s Goennemann says the NH90 NFH would deliver the highest possible capability for the RAN. “It’s the most technically advanced helicopter in its class, with world-leading performance at much lower operating and support costs than its competition,” he says.

Australian Aerospace is particularly promoting commonality issues between the MRH-90 and NH90. “Rationalisation can generate important savings from existing investments in the fields of common spares, stock management, maintenance centres, training and simulation equipment and in-service support,” he says.

The manufacturer also points out that selection of the NH90 NFH would create hundreds more jobs in Australia. Australian Aerospace currently employs more than 1,000 people, many of whom support Australia’s Tiger and MRH90 programmes. If Australian Aerospace wins the Project Air 9000 Phase 8 competition it is proposing to build the NH-90 NFH at its Brisbane facility.

APDR at a glance