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Helitech 2018: Civil positioning for military solutions (Insight)

9th October 2018 - 11:00 GMT | by Jim Winchester in London

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Commercial companies are increasingly supplying support to military helicopter operations, providing solutions to the marketplace in different ways, saving militaries money and allowing them to concentrate on operational tasks.

UK company HeliOperations purchased the former Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) base at Portland, Dorset in 2017 where it now runs a SAR and deck landing training facility.

In the military market, the company’s main activity is supporting training for the Federal German Navy (FGN), which still flies 21 Westland Sea King Mk41s purchased in the early 1970s.

German Navy pilots had previously received training with the Royal Navy. With the wind-down of the RN Sea King fleet and the end of the training pipeline, the Germans requested that the RN continue supplying training to fill the gap until the NH90 is in service in 2022, but that was not possible.

The solution was for the RN to provide the two Sea King Mk5s operated on the UK military register and some technical assistance to HeliOperations to allow them to offer a course for German aircrew. Previously the Germans were trained to fly the Sea King Mk5 and required a conversion course to fly the Mk41 when they returned but now they are offered a tailored course.

The first course for German crews started in September 2017. The contract calls for the training of 12 pilots, eight of them ab initio and four receiving command upgrade training.

FGN pilots now arrive at Portland having learned to fly on the Airbus H135 in Germany rather than the single-engine RN Gazelle as they did previously and get a two-stage course, first converting to a heavy multi-engine, multi-crew helicopter then undergoing operational flying training (cliff and boat winching and rescuing survivors in water by day and night).

The original contract was due to end in September 2018, but HeliOperations hope to get a continuation and see a niche for a company able to provide military flying training for partner nations as long as the UK government is willing to support it, and are exploring opportunities for various different military aircraft in a variety of different roles.

Since 2006, Toronto-headquartered Vector Aerospace – which became part of Airbus in June 2011 and was bought by StandardAero in 2017 - has conducted maintenance on the RAF’s Chinook fleet under the Through Life Customer Support (TLCS) contract, which covers airframe, avionics and component support.

When signed in 2006 the overall contract was worth $360 million for the first five years and was expected to save the UK MoD almost $295 million over the course of its 34-year lifespan. In April 2015, the contract was extended for five years. The Chinook fleet has grown from 46 to 60 airframes in that time and may increase further in future.

The Chinook work is spread around Vector’s facilities at Fleetlands near Gosport, Hampshire and Almondbank, Perthshire, Scotland. The Fleetlands facility was formerly part of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency and was transferred to Vector in 2008.

In early 2018, Vector added a support contract for the British Army Air Corps’ Gazelle AH 1 fleet. Maintenance of Gazelles has been carried out at Fleetlands since the type entered UK service in 1973. Today 26 Gazelles remain in service with a planned out of service date of June 2022.

Vector also has an aircraft refinishing facility at Fleetlands that can handle large helicopters and recent projects have included repainting the HeliOperations Sea Kings in a hybrid civil/military scheme.

The airlift division of AAR Corporation based in Wood Dale, Illinois provides helicopter support under both contractor-owned, contractor-operated and government-owned, contractor-operated deals.

In March 2016, Team AAR (including AAR’s Airlift division, British International Helicopters and Air Rescue Systems) began SAR and support helicopter operations in the Falkland Islands with Leonardo AW189s and Sikorsky S-61Ns. 

This is part of a ten-year, $275 million (£180 million) contract signed with the UK MoD in January 2015 to provide SAR, EMS, rescue hoist operations and passenger and cargo transfers within the islands.

The two AAR AW189s are leased to BIH and were the first of type to be certified by the CAA for civil SAR and replaced the UK RAF Sea King HAR3s, which were retired in 2016 after many years on the islands.

AAR say it is the first commercial SAR operation of its kind fit for both military and civil application and is committed to maintaining the same standards as the RAF provided while also providing continued excellence for the commercial support helicopter services.

At the peak of its operations in Afghanistan in 2013, AAR flew around half of the 50 helicopters operated by six civilian contractors on behalf of the US Transportation Command, two Sikorsky S-92s, 20 S-61s and two Bell 214s performing troop and cargo transport, including sling load missions, in support of forward outposts.

As US military commitment reduced, contract operations allowed DoD helicopters to be withdrawn and replaced with civilian aircraft. Restrictions that prevent flying in high threat areas mean that AAR and other contractors cannot fly some missions, nonetheless, hits from ground fire are not unknown. Most recently, AAR was issued a nine-month, $21.7 million extension to its Afghanistan contract, covering the supply of two S-92s, crews and maintenance.

Under a contract to the US Maritime Sealift Command, AAR also operates vertical replenishment services for US Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea, Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean using six SA330J Pumas. Use of contract aircraft frees up navy helicopters units for operational duties.

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