Puma HC2s Put Through Their Paces in Portugal

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief  | October 8, 2014
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Puma HC2 on the tarmac in Portugal. Photos by
Andrew Drwiega

Three of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) new Puma HC2 helicopters from 230 Squadron flew to the Ovar airbase in Portugal during July to take part in their first major foreign exercise since being upgraded by manufacturer Airbus Helicopters.

The occasion was the annual European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Hot Blade Exercise that was taking place for the third year in succession at the Ovar base. This is the first time that the RAF has been able to participate in the exercise for several years. It was an opportunity to test the new Puma HC2 in challenging hot and high conditions.


According to Andy Gray, EDA’s program manager, the Hot Blade missions were designed to increase in complexity as they progressed, while maintaining a fluid and changeable situation so typical of real-life deployments. One early mission combined “four Portuguese F-16s, providing over-watch and close air support; two Belgian A109s providing escort to a Portuguese EH-101, which will do the CSAR [Combat Search and Rescue] pick up. The diversionary attacks will be carried out by two British Pumas, two Dutch CH-47 Chinooks, three Austrian AB212s and five German UH1-Ds carrying infantry from Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands.”

Based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, UK, the Puma HC2 detachment was commanded by Squadron Leader Trevor Simpson, second in command of 230 Squadron. Fifty RAF personnel were in the group that made the journey. Two aircraft arrived at the beginning of the two week exercise which began on July 16. A third aircraft joined for the second week when the daily tasking became more frequent and complex. The helicopters completed the transit in one day, flying down through France and Spain.

The $422 million (£260 million) Puma Life Extension Program was largely carried out by Industria Aeronautică Română (IAR S.A. Brasov) at Airbus Helicopters’ Romanian joint venture facility. The aircraft were then completed and prepared for delivery at Airbus’ UK facility near Oxford. The Puma’s power has been boosted by Turbomecca Makila 1A1 turboshaft engines which, according to the RAF, provides 35 percent more power with added fuel efficiency. This effectively doubles their range on the performance of the Turbomeca Turmos IIIC4 in the Puma HC1. When fully operational they will feature the Selex ES Helicopter Integrated Defensive Aid System (HIDAS), glass cockpit with four-axis dual duplex digital flight control (DAFCS) autopilot, new communications and navigation systems (Rockwell Collins), self-sealing fuel tanks (GKN Aerospace), together with other modi-fications and strengthening and added ballistic protection (Permali).

There are currently 15 Puma HC2s at RAF Benson, eight of which are in the forward fleet flying with limitations (with seven in depth maintenance). Both 33 and 230 Squadrons operate the Puma HC2 as the Puma HC1 was decommissioned in December 2012.

A total of 24 Puma HC2s will be split between the two squadrons. Currently, there are 22 crews that are trained on the aircraft. The Puma simulator at the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF), also based at RAF Benson, was upgraded by training operator CAE over a year ago and completed ahead of schedule. It took five months to physically convert the dedicated Puma simulator which was a virtually new-build system. Another new feature to the training will be the first course of a digital ground school for ab initio pilots. With the aircraft converting to digital from the old analogue systems, CAE has created a fully interactive ground school that will focus on systems familiarization and procedural training.

Hot Blade Missions and ATGs

Puma HC2 instrument panel.

Simpson said that the Pumas will not reach their Initial Operating Capability (IOC) until April 2015 and were restricted to basic trooping operations without the use of fast rope, winching, or dropping paratroops. They did fly throughout the days on combined air operations (COMAOs).

“The aircraft has the same autopilot as the Caracal (EC725),” explained Simpson. “The DAFCS is making the dusty landings that we are practicing here a lot safer.” Having flown Pumas since 2001, Simpson says that the power available in the new version is impressive. “It leaps into the air; we also have safe single-engine flight performance wherever we are operating here.”

“We get our guys to fly in a circuit – hands-off – so they gain confidence in auto-pilot without touching the controls. This is really providing a lot more confidence for getting into confined areas, and using the hover height adjustments to bring the aircraft safely down. The aircraft has been cleared to 5,000 ft density altitude so we have been slightly limited about taking part in all of the exercises, but we have been using both aircraft simultaneously to trial ‘dust offs’ during the missions,” said Simpson.

There is a fifth fuel tank in the back of the helicopters that flew down from the UK which allowed another half an hour of flying time. The Puma HC2 with extra fuel can now fly for approximately two and a half hours – about 45 minutes more than the old HC1.

Said Simpson: “[We] hope to build on this year and attend in the future, and have learned a number of valuable lessons – not only in the flying phases. Smaller expeditionary equipment, such as deployable units for mission planning and communications which some of the other nationalities have brought with them, would have been good to have.” These included ISO-styled containers but modified with fold down integral sides that provided roomy, weather-protected spaces from which units could operate.”

Since returning from Portugal, the Pumas have also deployed on Exercise Agile Spear as part of the UK Joint Helicopter Command’s (JHC) Aviation Task Force (ATF).

The exercise in early September centered around Merrion Camp in Castlemartin, Wales. It tasked the ability to rapidly deploy a force for contingent operations. In addition to the Pumas, the aviation group also comprised RAF CH-47 Chinooks and AW101 Merlin HC3 helicopters, together with British Army Air Corps (AAC) Lynx AH9s. Exercises such as Agile Spear are designed to test the readiness and assist in the conceptual development of an AFT which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) states can be deployed globally on five days’ notice.

The next exercise will involve a foreign deployment to Jordan as Exercise Jebel Blade in October 2014, when an AFT will deploy in support of three Commando Brigade, Royal Marines.


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