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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Pacrim Notebook: Steps Toward Rationalisation

Barney O’Shea

THE AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE is pressing on with its efforts to "rationalise" its helicopter fleets, with just a few hurdles along the way.

The requirement for new helicopters (and a simplified fleet mix) was made apparent again with the Oct. 2 grounding of the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet of six Westland-built Sea Kings. Those aircraft are to be replaced by some of the 46 MRH90s Australia is acquiring from NHIndustries, the partnership of Eurocopter, AgustaWestland, and Stork Aerospace.

The MRH90 is a key element of rationalisation plans. The first of four to be produced by Eurocopter is to be delivered next month. (The other is the Eurocopter Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter.)

The commander Australian Fleet, Rear Adm. Nigel Coates, ordered a temporary suspension of flying operations after a Sea King suffered a fault in its tail-rotor assembly shortly after take-off Sept. 27 on a routine maintenance test flight from HMAS Albatross in Nowra, New South Wales, on Australia’s southeastern coast.

The flight crew made a controlled landing without further incident, according to the navy. The aircraft were still grounded as we went to press. "I will lift the suspension only when I am satisfied that it is appropriate to resume flying," Coates said when he ordered the grounding.

This was the second grounding of the Sea Kings this year. In May, the navy suspended flying operations after pins were found missing in a flight control assembly on one of the aircraft.

The Sea Kings, and particularly their maintenance, have been under scrutiny in the wake of the April 2, 2005 crash of a Sea King that killed nine people. A board of inquiry investigating that accident on the Indonesian island of Nias concluded its causes included an "embedded culture" of shortcuts in maintenance practices in the Navy. The nine Navy and Air Force members on the aircraft were part of a task force providing humanitarian aid following an earthquake on Nias. (The board found the primary cause was a failure of mechanical flight-control links on which mechanics had installed an incorrect nut and locking pin two months before the crash.)

The government has decided HMAS Albatross, home of the Navy’s fleet air arm, will be the site of the defence force’s joint helicopter school. That school is being established under the Helicopter Aircrew Training System announced in February this year. It is to train up to 60 pilots, 40 aircrewmen/loadmasters, and 12 observers a year. The $500-$700 million (Australian) project will replace aircrew training on Navy Eurocopter Squirrels and Army Bell Helicopter Kiowas as part of a broader rationalisation effort. The advanced training systems it is to deliver will train crews on the Sikorsky Aircraft Seahawk and Black Hawk, the MRH90, the Boeing Chinook and the ARH Tiger.

Helicopter aircrew members graduating from initial training in Nowra will take conversion training in the Seahawk and Kaman Seasprite at Nowra. Those pursuing conversion training in the MRH90 and Tiger will do that at the Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, Queensland in east-central Australia. Chinook crews will train at Townsville, in northeastern Queensland. The government is investing $135 million in Tiger and MRH90 training facilities at Oakey.

Aircrew training at Nowra is to start in 2013.

The 2007 Defence+Industry regional briefing was held Oct. 10 in Fremantle, New South Wales, with delegates from industry and Defence in attendance. The annual briefing, hosted by the Defence Materiel Organisation, provided industry with the latest information about the government’s plans for defence procurement priorities in the coming decade. That agency is managing more than 200 projects, including acquisition projects valued at more than $60 billion and $40 billion of whole-of-life sustainment projects over 10 years.

That agency expects to have accepted delivery of 11 ARH Tigers by the end of this year, and training of initial operational crews for the Army’s 1 Aviation Regiment is to begin this month. Training crews are flying the Tigers roughly 20-25 hr a month.

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