Between May 18th and May 21st of 2015 a yearly THPU or Tactical Helicopter Procedures Update exercise was held. This year it was the 17 th Squadron of the 1 st Wing stationed at Beauvechain Airbase who hosted the event. They operate the A-109 Agusta.
Goal of the THPU is, as the unabbreviated version states, to update the procedures of various NATO tactical helicopter crews and to align their working methods within NATO. The end result should be that all helicopter crew from all NATO countries can perform various missions in peaceful or conflicting situations smoothly and in unison.
The big scale training operation (also referred to as Combined Air Operation or COMAO) comprised out of several navigational exercises as well as training various real-life scenarios such as personnel recovery, attacking hostile targets, etc.
The exercise was held in preparation for Italian Blaze which will be held later this year Viterbo, Italy.
On the Wednesday, May 20th , the 1st Wing kindly reserved a day for spotters, photographers and aviation enthusiasts alike.
NATO participants of the THPU were:
Czech Air Force with a Mil Mi-17 and two Mil Mi-24
French Armée de Terre (ALAT) with two SA-330 Puma's and two SA342 Gazelles
German Heeresflieger with UH-1D Hueys
Belgian Air Force with four Agusta A-109s and four of the newly acquired NH-90s
Royal Air Force
The latter two only participated as tactical observers and brought no aircraft to the event.
As mentioned above, the Belgian Air Force participated for the first time using the newly acquired NH-90s.
The NH Industries NH90 is a medium-sized, twin-engine, multi-role military helicopter. It is the first helicopter to feature entirely fly-by-wire controls and the first helicopter to comply with full NATO helicopter requirements for a battlefield helicopter which is also capable of being operated in a naval environment.
The helicopter is capable of all-weather day-and-night operations, for both land and ship-borne operations. Two variants exist:
NFH: NATO Frigate Helicopter
The primary role of the NFH version is autonomous anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface unit warfare (ASuW), mainly from naval ships. These aircraft are equipped for day and night, adverse weather and severe ship motion operations. Additional roles include anti-air warfare support, vertical replenishment (VERTREP), search and rescue (SAR) and troop transport. The NFH variant is also typically outfitted with dipping sonar and sonobuoy processing equipment.
TTH: Tactical Transport Helicopter
The primary role of the TTH version is the transport of 20 troops or more than 2,500 kg of cargo, heliborne operations and search & rescue. It can quickly be adapted to MEDEVAC/CASEVAC missions by fitting up to 12 stretchers or cargo delivery capability. Additional roles include special operations, electronic warfare, airborne command post, parachuting, VIP transport and flight training.
These two main variants share about 75% commonality with each other.
Additionally, it is possible for each customer to have various alterations and customizations made to their own NH90 fleets, such as different weapons, sensors and cabin arrangements, to meet their own specific requirements. Thus, each nation's NH90 is effectively customized to the end-user's requirements..
The NH Industries company is wholly owned by Airbus Helicopters, AgustaWestland and Fokker Aerostructures. Development of the NH90 started back in 1985 when France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom joined hands to develop the NATO battlefield transport and anti-ship/anti-submarine helictoper for the 1990s. The UK left the joint venture in 1987. A new development contract was signed by France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands on September 1st , 1992, known as NAHEMA (NATO Helicopter Management Agency). They were joined by Portugal in June of 2001, who dropped back out of the programme in 2012 due to the financial crisis.
Major components are produced by each of the shareholding companies:
- Airbus Helicopters France 31.25% (Engines, Rotors, the Electrical, flight control and the core avionics systems)
- Airbus Helicopters Deutschland 31.25% (Forward and centre fuselage, the fuel, communications and avionics control systems)
- Fokker 5.5% (Tail structure, doors, sponsons, landing gear and the intermediate gearbox)
- AgustaWestland 32% (Rear fuselage, main gearbox, hydraulic system, automatic flight control and plant management systems, power plant and the NFH mission system)
The first prototype conducted its maiden flight on December 18th , 1995. During the development phrase of the programme in the 1990s, both technical and funding problems were experienced:
- German army experts stated that the NH90 had issues regarding troop transport (the seats were only rated for 110kg, considered too light for a fully equipped soldier – the cabin floor was prone to damage from equipment – adding a rear ramp machine gun was not possible due to space taken by troop ingress and egress – no fast rope provision)
- The Australian Department of Defense identified a more pressing issue in that the helicopter suffered compressor blade rubbing caused by the bending of a spool in the Rolls-Royce engines due to uneven cooling after shutdown.
- In March of 2014, the Dutch NH90 suffered higher than expected fuselage wear and corrosion following an extended deployment at sea.
The issues were all addressed and the NH90 is currently being delivered to multiple countries and is beginning its operational career. Countries currently receiving or ordering the NH90 are Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Spain and Sweden.
First customer to receive the production NH90 was the German Army in late 2006. In April of 2010, the Royal Netherlands Navy was the first customer to receive the NFH variant.
The Netherlands have a total of 20 units on order: 12 NFH and 8 TNFH for the Air Force. The NH90 even saw some operational service with the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN): in April of 2013, the RNN operated the NFH onboard HNLMS De Ruyter (F804) to help fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden. In November of 2014, the RNN deployed a single NFH to Somalia to support Operation Atalanta.
The Belgian Government started looking for a replacement helicopter for the ageing Westland Sea King helicopters which are broadly known for their Search & Rescue missions on and around the Belgian Coast and North Sea. The Sea Kings recently celebrated 40 years with the BAF.
An extra tactical helicopter was also on the wish list to complement the fleet of Agusta A-109 (their transport capabilities being very limited).
As a result, Belgium signed an initial contract for an order of 10 NH90 helicopters in 2007. This order comprised 4 TTH, 4 NFH and an option for 2 more TTH aircraft.
In September of 2012, NH Industries performed the first flight of the Belgian Air Force's first TTH and in January of 2013, eight NH90s were on firm order. Contractual training of the pilots and crew began in February of 2013.
On August 1st , 2013, the first NH90 NFH was received at Full Operational Capability at Koksijde Airbase, home of the Sea Kings. The Belgium crew flying the naval variant duly began their training in September of 2013, with operations planned to start in 2014, but pushed further back to early 2015 because of the aforementioned technical issues in developing the NH90.
The first of the TTH variants arrived at Beauvechain based 1 st Wing on October 2nd , 2013. The last one was delivered on November 13th , 2014. From the NH90s first delivery until the last, three of the delivered aircraft flew 34 hours a month for a total of 450 flight hours with a 67 percent availability rate, making Belgium one of the most intensive users of the helicopter. The first deployment of the BAF NH90 was a mountain flying exercise in Saillagousse, France in November of 2014.
Two NH90 frigate versions for the navy had been delivered, with the final two planned to be delivered by early 2015. The currently operated Sea Kings will retire in 2016 as the NFH NH90s are still undergoing some qualifications to fully take over the SAR tasks.
In order to centralize the maintenance of all NH90s operated by the Belgian Components, a new maintenance area is also being built at the Beauvechain Air Base.
A first formation training flight of all four TTH NH90s was held on February 12th , 2015. This flight lasted 45 minutes and was part of the operational awareness of the NH90 fleet. The four TTH NH90s will form the 18 th Smaldeel at Beauvechain Airbase under Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Gelders. Transitioning from the A-109 to the NH90 provides some challenges for the pilots as the NH90 is larger and heavier (10 tonnes compaired to 3 tonnes for the A-109) and can carry more cargo than the Agusta. The systems and avionics are also for more advanced than the A-109. They will also trade the traditional analog gauges for the full glass cockpit of the NH90.
On February 23rd , the TTH crew underwent an OT&E (Operational Training & Evaluation) exercise for lifting and transporting heavy loads slung underneath the helicopter which required a huge cooperation between the pilot and load master. Another training exercise involved picking up and transporting a full load of battle equipped soldiers and dropping them off in a simulated combat situation. These kinds of exercises also serve to learn about weight distribution and aircraft handling in different load layout situations.
It was during the THPU Spottersday on May 20th , 2015, that Maj. General Frederic Vansina, the Belgian Air Force Commander, declared the 18th Sqn “Initial Operation Capable” on the NH90.
The word “Initial” means that the NH90 TTH can be dispatched for national and international missions in “friendly” territory. The future operational milestones are to implement the Air Mobile Support to the Light Brigade and the installation of the self-defense and electronic warfare packages
The 18th Sqn is set to reach Full Operational Capability status by the end of 2016.
Back to the excellently organized spotters day hosted by the 1st Wing. In the morning all aviation enthusiasts who subscribed for the day received a warm welcome (and coffee) in one of the hangars at Beauvechain airbase.
At around 1000hrs shuttle busses transported everyone between 4 various OPS zones (Operations zones):
- QRA area: UH-1D, Gazelle, Puma and Alouette III
- H11 area: Mil Mi-17 and Mi-24s, Seaking and NH-90
- H5 area: NH-90s and there new hangars
- H2 area: All Agusta A-109s
Between 1200 and 1300hrs BAF F-16 Solo Dispay Pilot Tom “GIZMO” De Moortel visited the airspace over Beauvechain and treated everyone present with a display and short full stop visit. To further entertain the visitors other displays later in the afternoon included those of the Belgian Red Devils in their three SIAI Marchetti and, off-course, a display by the “home team”: the A-109 Display team.
At 1315hrs shuttle busses started taking everyone to the N1 area where it would all happen for the remainder of the day. A grandstand was posted nearby to host some of the Belgian government and military dignitaries, who would witness their newest acquisitions getting one more step closer to their final full operational status.
Indeed, shortly after the mass COMAO exercise mission takeoff, the NH-90s took center stage and demonstrated their main operational roles and techniques which they will fulfill in the Belgian military. The full array of capabilities were comprised in a simplified tactical scenario, referred to as IOC or Initial Operational Capability MTH demo.
A high value asset was held hostage by several terrorists in a hostile environment. The first NH-90 came in low and hovered a few feet over the grass to release about 10 fully equipped soldiers without touching the ground. The Special Forces cleared the area of hostiles after which a second NH-90 came in hot with a 105mm howitzer and its operating team.
It was followed by another NH-90 releasing additional troops via the fast rope technique.
Another gunfight followed after which the target was rescued and hoisted aboard another NH-90 hovering above the “buildings”.
With the asset secured, the rest of the commandos and the howitzer were recovered and everyone set course for home.
When the IOC was over, after a short wait, the COMAO participants returned back to base with a mass flypast which ended a very interesting and entertaining day.
If we would really have to specifiy one point of criticism, then it would be that we would have liked to see the COMAO participants making some low passes before landing, instead of the sole mass flypast. But hey, that's really nitpicking here J
We would sincerely like to thank everyone involved in making this spottersday a huge success and look forward to seeing more of these initiatives by the Belgian military.