DH - Defence Helicopter

DSEI 2019: Bringing rotary-wing to the big deck

3rd September 2019 - 14:00 GMT | by Richard Scott in Portsmouth


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Fixed-wing fast jets are not the only aircraft that will operate from the flight decks of the Royal Navy’s (RN) new Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) aircraft carriers and work has already begun to establish clearances for a wide range of helicopter types.

Beginning in late August, the WESTLANT 19 deployment is intended to begin the process of ‘operationalising’ the UK’s new Carrier Strike Group (CSG) ahead of a first operational deployment with the RN in 2021.

Led by the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, WESTLANT 19 will include a five-week period of operational testing (OT-1) off the US eastern seaboard with six-to-seven UK F-35B jets embarked. The CSG deployment will also test force-level command and control arrangements.

Another important component of WESTLANT 19 will be rotary-wing envelope expansion. While the raison d’être for the Queen Elizabeth class is Carrier Strike – using the F-35B Lightning II to deliver offensive air power from the sea – it was recognised from the outset of the programme that helicopters would have a vital force protection role to play as part of the carrier air wing. 

To this end, Queen Elizabeth and sister ship HMS Prince of Wales – due to start sea trials in the coming weeks - will routinely embark six Merlin HM.2 helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) to serve as an anti-submarine warfare ‘ring of steel’, and a further three Merlin HM.2 aircraft from 849 NAS configured with the Crowsnest mission kit to operate ‘up threat’ in the airborne surveillance and control role.

In addition, a flight of three or four Merlin HC.4 helicopters from 845 NAS will be embarked for maritime intra-theatre lift, including support to embarked Royal Marines, and deployed search and rescue duties.

More broadly, the concept of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) promotes the flight deck and aviation support facilities available on the QEC ships as an operating base for rotorcraft from all three services - and indeed from allies. An outcome of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, CEPP seeks to exploit the wider utility of the QEC carriers as mobile joint air operating platforms with the ability to embark a rotary-wing-heavy air group of around 40 aircraft. 

While initial First of Class Flying Trials (Rotary Wing) were undertaken in early 2018, there is still a considerable amount of work to do to expand ship/helicopter operating limits (SHOL) according to Capt James Blackmore, Carrier Air Wing and Strike Warfare Commander (CAG).

‘From a fixed-wing perspective we are in a very, very good shape,’ he told Shephard. ‘Right now, it’s the rotary-wing component that is the more constraining element to the way we operate the aircraft carrier. The aim is to achieve the widest SHOL envelope possible, so the ship is not constrained in its ability to manoeuvre.’

During FOCFT(RW), Queen Elizabeth sailed south to Gibraltar and then to an area off Mauritania to conduct flight testing and envelope expansion. The SHOL trials, conducted by Qinetiq and the Air Warfare Centre under the Air Test & Evaluation Centre (ATEC) partnership, involved two Merlin HM.2 and two Chinook HC.5 helicopters conducting landings at different weights and in varying conditions, including in the dark using night vision.

The 56-strong ATEC team, normally based at MoD Boscombe Down, undertook data analysis and reporting to establish each aircraft’s safe operating limits. Over the four-week period, the Merlin completed 540 landings, while the Chinook achieved 450.

More recently, the Army Air Corps’ AH-64D Apache attack helicopter has undertaken trials from Queen Elizabeth.  Following a three-day period of Platform Ship Integration Testing while the ship was alongside in Portsmouth, two aircraft from 656 Squadron were embarked at sea in late June for initial SHOL trials.

However, as Blackmore pointed out, there is still a considerable amount of work outstanding in the rotary-wing realm. ‘We got about 1,000 test points done with rotary-wing out of, if we’re honest, probably about a 3,000 portfolio. We’re some way short, and we hope to cover off a lot of those this autumn.’

He continued: ‘I’m not suggesting that we’re going to do 2,000 – in fact analysis has allowed us to eliminate some of those test points – but there is an appreciable body of work. We’ve got a nine-day period [as part of WESTLANT 19] for what we’re calling Rotary-Wing Developmental Test.’

To support the SHOL expansion period, a team from ATEC will again embark, together with two instrumented Merlin helicopters - one HM.2 and one HC.4. ‘This [testing] will be for Merlin principally,’ said Blackmore, ‘but from that SHOL you can then apply read across to Wildcat, Apache, and probably Chinook as well.’

He continued: ‘The area we’re particularly looking at is operations at increased all-up mass. We will be operating in warm weather conditions, which helps calculate the all-up mass. And it will mean putting ballast in the Mk 4.

‘We also want to do further testing of aft facing, and into-wind facing launches and recoveries for helicopters. So that’s the ability to launch red 90, green 90 and so on.’

‘When you are in that Carrier Strike heavy model of minimum 24 jets, with the ability to surge to 36, deck space is going to be at a premium.'

Capt James Blackmore

Another piece of work to be completed during Rotary-Wing Developmental Test will look to achieve clearance for additional landing spots around the carrier flight deck. This activity stems from studies performed in 2014 to inform design and layout changes necessary to broaden the utility of the aircraft carriers under the CEPP concept. Ten spots for Merlin-size medium lift helicopters would allow for a company-sized air assault in a single group lift.

The six standard deck spots will be maintained on the flight deck.

‘But on top of that, we will overlay a deck configuration that goes Alpha through Papa,' said Blackmore, adding, ‘Where six spot is, on the starboard aft quarter, we want to be able to put two landing spots there fore and aft [designated] November and Papa spot. And we want to open up two ranks of five on  the main flight deck for rotary, for both Merlin and Chinook.

‘You get Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Echo [spots] up the very port side of the ship, and then up the starboard side of the main runway you’ll go Hotel, Juliet, Kilo, Lima and Mike. 

‘So that would give you ten on the main deck plus two on the starboard aft quarter. What that would allow you to do is to put 10 Merlins on the main deck, or potentially 10 Chinooks. It really expands the utility and flexibility of the platform if you were to go helicopter heavy.’

In theory, the deck could be grown to as many as 14 spots, with Foxtrot and Golf in the ‘graveyard’ area forward.

‘We’re going to test towards that,’ said Blackmore. ‘I’m not going to suggest we’ll get all 14, but those are the notional spots we want to be able to look at. And that’s obviously for something that looks very helicopter-heavy.

‘The ones I’m really keen to get  [cleared] are those November and Papa spots. If ‘Wings’ [the ship’s Commander Air] can launch and recover helicopters from the starboard side while still operating jets off the main runway, then you’ve just grown capability quite quickly.

‘When you are in that Carrier Strike ‘heavy’ model of minimum 24 jets, with the ability to surge to 36, deck space is going to be at a premium,’ added Capt Blackmore. ‘So being able to operate helicopters from elsewhere [on the flight deck] will be quite useful.

‘This is really the tenet of why we need to understate helicopter SHOL expansion to afford the maximum operational flexibility in our primary role as a strike carrier whilst also allowing the flexibility to operate increased numbers of helicopters.’

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