Rotorcraft Report: Special Report: U.K. Chinook Fiasco

By Staff Writer | April 1, 2009
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Even by military procurement standards, the U.K. Chinook Mk3 fiasco is of historic proportions. Started in 1995, it continues to this very day with eight new Boeing Chinook Mk3 helicopters still grounded in RAF hangars. With some small exceptions, they have been parked since being delivered in 2001. More mind-boggling, these advanced helicopters that were purchased specifically for special ops are currently restricted to flying on cloudless days above 500 feet where the pilot can navigate via landmarks.

That’s not all: Rather than being somehow fixed to fly, what the special ops Mk3 Chinooks are designed for, these eight Mk3s are being deliberately "dumbed down" to less-capable Mk2 standards. Then there’s the cost overruns. The British taxpayer paid $358 million for eight Chinook Mk3s. They will end up paying 63 percent more than that price tag — an additional $224 million — for eight Chinook Mk2s, to be ready for service sometime this year or next. Meanwhile, British troops in Afghanistan are making do without these eight Chinooks, flying special ops missions in modified Mk2s publicly acknowledged to be less than optimal for the job.


How did such a "cockup," as the Brits say, happen? That was the topic of a recent report issued by the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. According to the 2009 PAC Report, "The problems with the Mk3 procurement stemmed from the Department’s [Ministry of Defence/MoD] failure to specify in the contract that it required access to the software source code in order to assess the safety risks and establish whether the helicopters would meet U.K. airworthiness standards. Given that software is key to the operation of most modern defence equipment, this is irresponsible."

How did the U.K. buy eight helicopters that it couldn’t certify as airworthy? Here’s the history: Digging into the June 18, 2008 hearing upon which the 2009 PAC Report is based, it seems the RAF wanted to buy off-the-shelf MH-47e helicopters; the same aircraft used by the USAF. Unfortunately, cost-conscious MoD bureaucrats swapped out part of the Mk3’s digital cockpit with cheaper analog avionics and neglected to purchase the right to access Boeing’s software codes in the process. Without the codes to allow for proper flight analysis, the cheaper Mk3s could not be certified as airworthy by U.K. standards, at least not for the special ops missions for which they had been purchased.

Ian Parker, a U.K.-based freelance aerospace and defense journalist, is baffled by the fiasco. "There is obviously something very amiss here because the U.K. and U.S. are effectively allies in a war, and to keep desperately needed helicopters on the ground because of a contract problem is beyond belief," Parker told Rotor & Wing. "The MoD apparently forgot to order the avionics source codes, but surely these must be a fraction of the cost of the helicopters themselves, so why has the MoD not simply ordered them separately?"

This key question was raised during the June 18, 2008 PAC hearing, upon which the 2009 Report is based. Under persistent questioning by PAC members, MoD Chief of Defence Materiel General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue apparently attributed Boeing’s refusal to sell or share the source code to hard feelings.

"It is fair to say that we changed the specification for eight of the aircraft and we were going to put in a glass cockpit," he explained. "Then, for budgetary reasons, we changed that to a partial glass cockpit and those aircraft bore no resemblance to the original ones that Boeing provided and I can understand why Boeing would be reluctant to offer up [the code]... Because the aircraft was not what they had originally specified; it was a change in design."

Was it actually hard feelings that kept Boeing from releasing the code? Not according to an informed source close to the company, who spoke to Rotor & Wing on background. According to this source, Boeing couldn’t share or sell the source code, because it belonged to a Boeing supplier, not Boeing itself. Worse yet, Boeing was unable to do so due to ITAR restrictions on sharing such information with non-U.S. clients. According to the source, the only way in which the source code could have been shared for U.K. airworthiness certification, is if all of the airworthiness tests had been conducted in the U.S.

Whatever or not that is true, a code-less MoD acknowledges its mistake and desperately sought a workaround to get the MK3s flying. This brings us to 2004, when the MoD launched its Fix to Field project to resolve the Mk3 situation. Under Fix to Field, the Mk3s’ systems were to be modified as required to permit U.K. airworthiness testing. Unfortunately, thanks to 30 months lost to negotiations between MoD and Boeing, plus other delays, Fix to Field didn’t work.

In 2007, the MoD dropped the Fix to Field approach and opted for Reversion instead. Under Reversion, the eight Mk3s are being modified down to meet lower Mk2 standards. "Three companies — Boeing, AgustaWestland and QinetiQ — are making the conversion," said an official Boeing statement sent to Rotor & Wing. "The group will deliver two aircraft in 2009 which, after extensive testing, will be deployed to RAF Odiham for use in training and operations." Through the Reversion program, the MoD can get these eight Chinooks to a state where they can be certified and allowed to fly outside of fair weather VFR conditions. The rest should be ready by 2010.

Even in coming up with this solution, however, MoD’s Age of Errors had not passed: "In assessing the Reversion project, however, the department failed to consult with Boeing, the manufacturer of the helicopters, with regard to the potential costs or time frames," according to the 2009 PAC report, "and the estimated cost of the project subsequently grew by 70 percent."

As for the special operations capability promised by the MK3s, but never delivered; in the much-famed British tradition of muddling through, the MoD "has met the needs for demanding very low light special operations by using Chinook Mk2/2a helicopters modified with a Night Enhancement Package," said a 2008 report by the National Audit Office (the U.K.’s GAO). "The ergonomics of the modified cockpit are imperfect and, while the Department is content that the modified Chinook Mk2/2a helicopters are safe to fly, it accepts that there are safety and operating risks associated with the night enhancement package."

In the U.K., the MoD has "acknowledged that the Chinook Mk3 project had been badly handled and was one of its worst procurement experiences," noted the 2009 PAC Report.

But that’s not all: Even when these Chinooks are finally put into service, the RAF will still not have the eight special operations helicopters it asked for back in 1995 — despite the fact that it purchased its helicopters from an American company.

"Bearing in mind the special relationship between the U.K. and U.S., recently reaffirmed by President Obama, the situation is even more difficult to believe," said Ian Parker. "Having followed the development and deployment of the Chinook as a defence journalist since the early 19980s, it’s heartbreaking to have these highly capable aircraft stuck in hangars in the U.K. when they could be spearheading the War on Terror where they’re needed most."

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