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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Pacrim Notebook: Pilots and Battle Captains

Barney O'Shea

THE FIRST MRH90 IS DUE TO ARRIVE in Australia mid-month, marking the start of the next big transition for the nation’s military rotary-wing aviation forces.

Australia has ordered 46 of the versions of the NH90 built by the NHIndustries partnership of AgustaWestland, Eurocopter, and Stork Fokker Aerospace. Twelve will supplement the Australian Army’s airlift capability, now provided by Sikorsky Black Hawks, and 34 will replace Australian Defence Force Sikorsky Sea Kings and Black Hawks.

The first two flying models of the MRH90 are due at Eurocopter’s Australian Aerospace subsidiary in Brisbane later this year, on Dec. 14. The initial Australian aircraft are being built by Eurocopter in France. The remainder will be built in Brisbane, replacing the Tiger in the production line there as the attack helicopter run is completed.

One of the big problems is whether Eurocopter can maintain their deliveries. They’re two years late with the Tiger program and two years behind with the NH90 for the Germans. Australia might well get the flying MRH90s on time in December. But will it go the same way as with the Tiger?

Australian Aerospace has built a stockpile of completed Tigers, which the Army can’t accept because they don’t have enough trained pilots. They just cannot train yet to man the numbers of aircraft available.

The Army contract is pretty well up to scratch. The major milestones are done pretty well. But it’s a gigantic operation to go from the Bell Kiowa to such a modern, complex machine as the Tiger.

The reason they’ve been able to do the Tiger program the way they’re doing it now is that the first people to go in the Tiger are, naturally, the people who are already the operational reconnaissance pilots. A lot of them have done cross-training with Britain and with America.

At the Heli-Pacific conference two years ago, they presented four Australian Army aviators who had served overseas to show how Army aviation was going. Three of the four on the stage returned with the U.S. Army’s Bronze Star, awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement. Maj. Stephen Jobson was a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with the 82nd Airborne Div. during Operation Enduring Freedom in mid- to late 2002. Maj. Tim Connolly also flew Black Hawks with the 82nd Airborne in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002-03 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-04. Capt. John Rowell flew OH-58Ds with 2nd Sqdn., 17th Cavalry in the 101st Div. during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-04.

The fourth on stage, then Capt., now Maj. Scott Watkins, was the Australian Army Aviator of the Year. His service in Iraq later made him the first Army aviator to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.K. since the Vietnam War.

These are the people who are learning the Tiger. These will be the first operational pilots.

The first Tiger units are expected to be operational by the end of this year.

An aspect of Australian Army aviation training, which a lot of people are forgetting, is that the service will not take the same approach as the U.S. Army does.

Australia’s basic system calls for training pilots on the Tigers as crews. The first thing they’ve got to do is teach the pilots to fly the Tiger. Once they’ve got experienced fliers, they will then make the decision on who will be the battle captain, the man who sits in the front row.

In this way, the army will field experienced crews, who should be fairly well trained before they get near a unit. But it won’t be a case of a body turning up and fitting in with someone else to become a crew. It will be in the early stages, because in the early stages all they will have is the pilots.

But the Army has been training pilots over the last year. They’ve just initiated training of the battle captains. Army officials cannot say the date certain when the Tiger units will be operational, because although they plan it, they don’t know just when it’s "going to get to a nice golden brown in the oven."

In Afghanistan, Australian forces passed a milestone in January, when the Army’s two-ship CH-47 Chinook detachment racked up its 1,000th hr of operational flying in combat operations. That is at least twice the flying time a Chinook unit would accrue in a normal year.

The detachment has been operating out of Kandahar airfield for nearly a year, and its achievements are out of proportion to its size. The milestone was passed during joint Australian-U.S. aviation operations to support a relief unit in place for a Romanian battalion. The 1,000 hr were flown without a serious incident or accident.

There are two Chinooks on rotation in Afghanistan, from the six assigned to the Australian Defence Force C Sqdn. of 5 Aviation Regiment. The first two Chinooks and their support group were prepared in 80 days, to the same standard as the U.S. Army Chinooks operating in Afghanistan. All six in the squadron have been modified to that standard so the complete ADF force can operate with U.S. Army aviation.

The Chinooks are due to rotate home this month.

T.B. "Barney" O’Shea helped introduce helicopters into the British Army Air Corps and assisted in setting up the Australian Army Aviation Corps. A recipient of the American Helicopter Society’s Gruppo Agusta International Fellowship, he is a guest lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and other universities. He can be reached at rotorandwing@accessintel.com.

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