Thursday, October 1, 2009
Putting the "Super" in the Kaman Super Seasprite
The Kaman Seasprite has a retro-50s flare and the empennage looks a bit too short for the height of the fuselage. I never thought it was very pretty. But when a company invites me to test drive a helicopter, looks aren’t very important. It’s all about performance and operational capability. And trust me, what the SH-2G(I) lacks in looks, it makes up for in performance and a suite of state-of-the-art avionics that belies its old school exterior.
The H-2 Seasprite was designed in the late 1950s and manufactured by Kaman Aircraft Corporation (now Kaman Aerospace Corp. Helicopters Division) of Bloomfield, Conn., as a ship-based, light utility rotorcraft for the U.S. Navy. Its folding main rotor blades, hinged tail section and small footprint led the Department of Defense to design the Knox and Perry Class frigates specifically to carry the single-engine workhorse out to sea, complete with its own shipboard hangar. Kaman built 184 SH-2A and B models between 1961 and 1963, each of which were powered by a General Electric T58 engine.
Beginning in 1967, Seasprites received a major upgrade, which included a second engine. With a pair of General Electric T58-GE-8B turboshaft powerplants producing 1,250 shp each under the hood, the Navy changed the designation to the UH-2C. Additional upgrades to a portion of the fleet resulted in the SH-2D, giving the three-place aircraft light airborne multi-purpose system (LAMPS) capabilities, and the ability to perform anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ship missile defense (ASMD) operations.
In 1981, Kaman began production of the Seasprite in the form of the SH-2F, and also commenced converting a number of C models to F models. This variant came with a beefier retractable landing gear, shortened wheelbase and a matched pair of GE T58-GE-8F engines delivering 1,350 shp each.
The SH-2G followed the F model, but only six of the 24 delivered to the Navy were factory new. The other 18 were F models that were retrofitted into the new variant. All were powered by two GE T700-GE-401 engines that pour out 1,437 shp each.
After 600-plus extended deployments, more than 1.5 million flight hours, and the highest deployed readiness record of any U.S. Navy helicopter, all Seasprites had been retired from the U.S. military’s inventory by June 2001. The aircraft, however, found service with Poland and the Royal New Zealand Navy as the SH-2G(NZ), and the Arab Republic of Egypt as the SH-2G(E), the latter of which are currently going through a fleet upgrade.
Kaman actually built a fleet of 11 Seasprites for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), nine of which were delivered between 2003 and 2006, but were never deployed. "There were several factors involved in that," said Steve Rutter, program manager for Kaman. "But they had nothing to do with the unique capability that the aircraft offered the RAN." Consequently, Kaman now has all 11 of the virtually new RAN aircraft — designated the SH-2G(I) — back at its facility and ready for immediate sale.
SH-2G(I) Super Seasprite
The SH-2G(I) — the "I" designation standing for "International" — Super Seasprite may be the same general hull design as its 1960s predecessor, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Kaman’s engineers gutted the platform and upgraded everything from the powerplants to the avionics. Mark Tattershall, director of marketing and business development for Kaman, describes the Super Seasprite as "the most advanced intermediate maritime helicopter available today that doubles as a utility helicopter."
The list of upgrades that turned the Seasprite into the Super Seasprite is both lengthy and all-encompassing, with a separate list of military equipment that can be added at the buyer’s discretion. The highlights include a fully integrated tactical avionics suite, built-in corrosion protection system, digital automated flight controls, glass cockpit, sea-state 5-capable emergency floats and true "return to ship" single engine performance from the farthest limits of its operational radius.
Stats and numbers are fine. But the thing that attracted me to Kaman’s sprawling Bloomfield campus was how well the Super Seasprite performs.
The SH-2G(I) is a tall ship with a rugged, retractable forward main landing gear configuration designed to give ample ground clearance for belly-mounted sensors and low-slung, pylon-mounted weapons. That puts the flight deck somewhere higher than that of a UH-60 Black Hawk, but lower than the cockpit of a CH-47 Chinook.
Sliding doors just beneath the engine nacelles provide access to a modest-size aft cabin, which, in the case of N318KA, Kaman’s demonstrator, contained some flight evaluation equipment and the standard, forward-facing, crew jump seat on the starboard side.
The tail has a stubby horizontal stabilizer midway up the vertical fin that stops just below the anti-torque rotor. And, like most dedicated military helicopters, the Super Seasprite has a variety of antennae, countermeasure launchers and sensors dotting its hull.
Once aboard and nestled comfortably in the left seat, I struggled to determine why the SH-2G(I) felt so comfortable. I don’t mean in terms of the thick seat cushions, which certainly were nice, but the feeling that the entire cockpit had been designed specifically for me.
It just seemed like everything from the flight controls to the avionics were located in the perfect spot.
In the Air
Seated to my right was Bill Hart, Kaman’s chief pilot and test pilot. Hart is a retired naval aviator with more active duty hours in the Seasprite than most people have in their family car. He walked me through the various checklists, lit-off the engines and pulled the SH-2G(I) into the air. Once over the fence of Kaman’s facility he handed the controls over to me.
Quite frankly, I was expecting the stubby little aircraft to shake, rattle and roll like an old delivery truck. I could not have been more wrong. For more than two hours, I marveled at how smooth and responsive the Super Seasprite was throughout its envelope. Pitch, roll and yaw inputs yielded immediate results with no surprises, and provided the exact right amount of feedback to let me know that I and the aircraft were reading from the same sheet of music.
Field of view from either front seat is absolutely the best I have ever seen in a dedicated military helicopter, thanks to the unusually thin posts that hold the large, nearly vertical windscreens in place. The four-across placement of the multi-function displays were easy to reach and read, as were the avionics situated on the center console.
Once over Long Island Sound, Hart demonstrated the capabilities of the search and rescue avionics by programming the autopilot to fly to a specific point over the water where a fictitious downed pilot was awaiting rescue. As we arrived on station, the SH-2G(I) reduced its speed and positioned itself in a stable hover 50 feet above our imaginary comrade. With the press of a button, the aircraft transitioned itself into back forward flight, returned to the preprogrammed cruise altitude and headed back to shore. This was certainly not your father’s old Seasprite!
Next, it was time to do some pattern work. So, we steered N318KA to Chester Airport (SNC) and obtained clearance for a few RNAV (GPS) approaches to Runway 35. With the autopilot off, the Super Seasprite cooperated with my slightest inputs, allowing me to hit all of my numbers and make several smooth approaches to hover. Climb-outs, pattern legs and all subsequent styles of approaches were equally enjoyable.
As far as I’m concerned, though, no evaluation flight would be complete without checking the "what if" capabilities of a helicopter. So, the last few maneuvers around Chester Airport consisted of simulated engine failures and systems malfunctions.
Autorotations in the SH-2G(I) were so uneventful they were boring. Hitting the appropriate profile for an emergency landing takes little more than a thought. The helicopter almost seems to know what to do after that.
Hydraulic failures, however, were not so pleasant. (Are they ever?) The cyclic was only a little tougher than in most helicopters that size. But the collective took quite a bit of downward force to lower. Having a copilot to help coax it down isn’t necessary, but it would certainly be welcomed in the event of a real hydraulics failure.
As we turned outbound from Chester Airport and headed back to Bloomfield, Hart suggested that I sample the top end of the speed envelope. Vne is listed as 150 kts, which the Super Seasprite gave with no complaints. Even with the collective seemingly pulled up to my left ear, the ship flew smoothly and gave no signs of wanting to slow down.
Landing back at Kaman was simple and uneventful, except for the look of restrained annoyance on the faces of those where expecting us back for lunch nearly an hour sooner. The most I could do was apologize and tell them that I enjoyed flying the SH-2G(I) Super Seasprite so much, they were lucky that I brought it back at all.