Military, Products, Public Service, Services

Tip of the Spear

By Barney O’Shea | February 1, 2007
Send Feedback

HELICOPTER FLEETS ARE DEFINITELY LEADING THE way in Australian aviation, both on the military and civil sides.

I will look at the vitality of civilian helicopter operations in Australia at a later time and focus now on the range of efforts by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This is based on my recent visit to the Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, in the northwestern state of Queensland, about 75 mi (120 km) west of Brisbane, and the production facility of Australian Aerospace in Brisbane, as well as my years of intimate involvement with Australian Army aviation.

Seeing the production and planning for the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) Tiger, the number of personnel making preparations for the Multi-Role Helicopter 90 (MRH90) version of the NHIndustries NH90, and the implementation of a new contractual system by the ADF and Australian Aerospace left me with a highly favorable impression.


In addition to preparing for domestic production of the ARH Tiger and MRH90 and operation of those aircraft, Australian military aviation is busy deploying Chinooks to support special forces in Afghanistan and continuing efforts to rationalize its rotorcraft fleets. These include completion of the AIR 9000 Project (which will equip the Australian Army with additional troop-lift helicopters, replace the Black Hawk fleet, and rationalize the overall number of ADF helicopter types) and the pursuit of the Rotary-Wing Flying Training Rationalization initiative.

The importance of these efforts to Australian military capabilities and the security of both the nation and the South Pacific region has raised the visibility of rotorcraft to unprecedented levels.

The introductions of the ARH Tiger and MRH90 are the first steps in the helicopter rationalization aspects of Project Air 9000, the ARH replacing the Kiowa and the MRH90 replacing the Army Black Hawks and Royal Australian Navy’s aging Sea Kings.

Australian Aerospace, a Eurocopter subsidiary, now has contracts for the ARH Tiger and the MRH90, giving the nation an indigenous helicopter production facility. The 22nd and last ARH Tiger is now on the production line in Brisbane. Tiger One, the first ARH delivered, has been returned to Australian Aerospace for updating to the Australian format.

This demonstrates Eurocopter’s overall planning for the Tiger. All five variants — two French, two German, and one Australian — have the same basic structure and systems, which means the same capability can be expected from Tigers of the different nations. Australia ordered the ARH before the French and Germans finalized their requirements, so a basic French model was used to build the first Australian Tiger. Tiger One is being brought up to full ARH Australian specifications, fully instrumented, and held by the Research and Development squadron as a control on other test and production aircraft and for testing as required.

By April, the first of the 46 MRH90s Australia has ordered is planned to be on that production line in Brisbane.

To accomplish this, the MRH production team — led by Production Manager Graham Mathews — in late 2006 sent a team to Eurocopter in France to learn the MRH90. This should enable the line in Brisbane to work continuously, without a break in production. To date, Australian Aerospace has been well up on deliveries, the seventh MRH90 having been handed over in late 2006 and several others completed.

The contract with Australian Aerospace and introduction of the MRH90 is proving out the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO)’s contract system, with many items being incorporated in a defense acquisition for the first time. The company, for instance, is executing a training and helicopter support contract. The planned training fleet of three Tigers at the Army Aviation Training Centre has been increased to four for the initial training phase. The contract also covers the ARH Simulator, a unique installation of a full-motion simulator with two separate cockpits, one for the pilot and one for the battle captain.

At the time of my visit, the major effort was on pilot training as the pilot and the battle captain each have to be able to fly the aircraft. (Battle captains are selected after flight training). The two-cockpit simulator allows the flight instructor to "fly" in one cockpit with the student in the other. The simulator records each and every action of the student and can be controlled and receive inputs externally. A special, head-up sight is fitted to the pilots’ personal helmets as required.

Fixed-base cockpit procedures trainers with the same twin-cockpit format also are being supplied, one each for Oakey and 1 Aviation Regiment in Darwin.

All these training aspects are the responsibility of Australian Aerospace.

Other fleet rationalization efforts are being pursued under the Rotary-Wing Flying Training Rationalization initiative, which will centralize commercial, or civil-like, non-military, training and flying at the Army Aviation Training Centre. The ADF’s Kiowas will be retained for training until a suitable replacement is found to best introduce new pilots to the Tiger and MRH90.

There is currently a difference in Royal Australian Navy and Army training requirements. AIR 9000 calls for them to have a standard trainer, since it is anticipated both will have all twin-engine helicopter fleets. There is a perceived need for a light utility helicopter. To advance rationalization, a trainer could be acquired that also filled that role.

All Army training for the Kiowa and Iroquois has been stopped. The ADF’s Iroquois are due to go out of service within two years.

The role of the Defence Materiel Organisation is not clear from its name. The DMO has the responsibility of ensuring the ADF’s troops get the equipment they need and are trained correctly on it and that their aircraft, weapons systems, and other equipment are supported and maintained throughout the gear’s entire life cycles. The preparation and deployment of the CH-47D Chinook helicopters of 5 Aviation Regiment to Afghanistan is a good example.

ADF equipment has to be compatible throughout the Australian services and, where possible, with the units of friendly forces with which the ADF may serve. The aging Chinook is in service with 16 nations and in a variety of roles; the ADF chose the version in service with the U.S. Army. This enabled the use of an already-established organization for support like defect reporting and automatic notification of modifications or defects, as well as access to a wider supply organization than would otherwise be available to an acquirer of a set of six helicopters. A very big plus was access to established training and operational organizations.

Australia specified that their CH-47Ds be as close as possible to the U.S. Army’s. There is a wide range of equipment and configurations available to make the Chinook better suited for specific operations. While the U.S. has the manpower and budget to establish special units for these tasks, the ADF has to field aircraft capable of supporting all its operations.

The Chinooks were sent to Afghanistan so their payload and long-range capabilities could put troops where required in one of the world’s most difficult operating areas. The sparsely populated, mountainous terrain, which is subject to extremes of climate, rules out fixed-wing landing strips and emphasizes the need for extensive preparation.

Readying 5 Regiment’s Chinooks to deploy to Afghanistan was a task of some magnitude, costing about $25 million (Australian) and involving some 14 modifications, including the first-time installation of weapons (M134 mini-guns) and armor. With 5 Regiment facing a violent opposing force in extremely demanding environmental conditions, there was no room for error.

The task was completed on time, having put ADF capabilities to the test. One Chinook was completed as quickly and thoroughly as possible to provide a helicopter for training flying and support personnel for Afghanistan, as both the helicopter and conditions were new to all. Two machines were completed and deployed to Afghanistan for a year. Plans call for Chinooks there to be exchanged every 80 days.

Once the first two were away, the second pair was upgraded, invariably with more extensive modifications than the original pair. One Chinook is being maintained to the "Afghanistan Standard" for use by training teams prior to deployment.

The flying and support of the Chinooks in Afghanistan has attracted some very favorable comments on the capability of the Australian Army Aviation Corps — its troops’ very high professionalism and ability to operate fully in conjunction with friendly forces.

The actual magnitude of the Chinook work is difficult to envisage. The modifications were carried out by people from 14 different locations in Australia and the United States. The Swartz Shield for 2006 was presented to the DMO’s Army Aviation Systems Office for the CH-47D Rapid Acquisition Project, as the work was titled.

Named after Sir Reginald Swartz, the first honorary colonel of the Australian Army Aviation Corps, the Swartz Shield is presented for excellence in capability development and delivery, the criteria having been expanded to cover the modern army’s changing demands. Sir Reginald, who passed away in January 2006, was instrumental in the Army setting up Oakey as the home of Army aviation.

Although the rapid acquisition was approved in November 2005, actual authority to provide priority was not given until January 2006, with the Chinooks scheduled to deploy in May 2006. It was a tight schedule, yet all flight testing, certification, authorizations, and airworthiness approvals were completed, as was all essential training, before deployment.

This offers some idea of the essential work the DMO performs. At the same time the Chinook work was done, the DMO was supporting 110-plus Army aircraft, with Black Hawks operational in Pakistan and East Timor and Army aviation engaged in a major effort to support the Commonwealth games.

The Chinook has proven ideal for supporting special forces, enabling a team complete with all its equipment to be transported over long distances regardless of terrain. Seeing how successful the Chinooks have been with special forces in Afghanistan, it would not be a surprise, when new replacement models are ordered, for a few more -47Ds to be obtained (if not the new-build -47Fs the U.S. Army is acquiring) to improve squadron capability.

The importance of helicopters to the ADF can be seen by the DMO’s formation of the Helicopter Div., by separating helicopters from the Aerospace Div., and appointing Maj. Gen. Tony Fraser as that division’s first commander. That puts it on equal footing with other divisions and marks the first time an Army aviator has been promoted to major general. The promotion is seen as taking maximum advantage of available capability, as Fraser has been instrumental in making Australian Army aviation the highly capable operational force it is today. As former commander of the Aviation Brigade, Fraser has been involved in the acquisition of the Tiger and MRH90.

The formation of the Helicopter Div. commanded by one of the most respected leaders in Army aviation emphasizes the importance the ADF places on rotorcraft. With some $6 billion of new machines coming in, operational flying, support and all training, the ADF is the big-money element of Australian helicopters.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox