explains Air Vice-Marshal Julian Young, Director Helicopters, Defence Equipment and Support. “However, these particular conflict arenas highlighted some of the frailties of the fleet, both in terms of capability and age.” The Puma, for example, was underpowered for the high temperatures in which it was operating, and the hot and dusty conditions were creating a heavy operational workload for the aircrews of both helicopter fleets, particularly at night and in poor visibility.
EXTENSIVE MODIFICATION In addition, the primary structure cracking caused by continual vibration running through the airframe, which is associated with all rotary-wing aircraft operations, was becoming more frequent and troublesome to repair, rendering the fleets less reliable. They needed extensive modification to address both safety and capability issues, and to extend their operational life. The cost was inevitably going to be high, but substantially less than the cost of brand-new helicopters.
“TO THINK AN AIRCRAFT WE BOUGHT IN 1980 WOULD FLY THROUGH TO 2060 IS INCREDIBLE, ESPECIALLY FOR A HELICOPTER” The Pumas have been fitted with new and more powerful engines, which have also given them extended range, greater speed, and a 25% reduction in fuel consumption, despite a 35% increase in thrust. Both aircraft types also needed a range of structural enhancements to make them stronger and more resistant to cracking, plus a host of systems and technology upgrades. Crucially, both helicopter fleets have been retrofitted with glass cockpits to ease aircrew workload, especially in conditions of reduced visibility, and a digital automatic flight control system that Young describes as a “gamechanger” in terms of capability. Both of these systems were already fitted to the new Mark 6 Chinooks. “The SDSR reinforced the Rotary Wing Strategy decision in effect to ‘recapitalise’ the fleet, taking what we had already – which was performing well and in many instances was world-leading – and upgrading it to enhance operational capability and extend its working life,” says Young. “The Chinook, for example, is operated by many countries across the world, is an amazingly capable aircraft, has great utility, and a really strong proven track
record in operations. What else would we have bought to replace it? What we have been able to achieve is to fit a huge variety of technical enhancements to what were relatively old airframes in some instances.”
A NEW LEASE OF LIFE The current out-of-service date for the Chinook stands at 2040, but Young points out that the United States is planning to extend the aircraft’s operational life out to 2060 or 2070 because the helicopter has been so successful. He says that plans being drawn up to extend the RAF Chinook fleet’s operational serviceability beyond 2040 would probably in time include a mix of refurbishing or upgrading some of the newer helicopters and replacing some of the older aircraft.
AIR POWER 2016 INSPIRATION AND INNOVATION
3.1 Upgrading the helicopter fleet.indd 68