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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Operations: Flying Into the Storm

Wim Das and Kees Otten


This is the slogan with which the Koninklijke Marine, or Royal Netherlands Navy, portrays itself to the Dutch public. But to know what the slogan means, we needed to take a closer look.

The navy invited us to visit Naval Air Station de Kooy, home base of the Marine Luchtvaart Dienst (MLD), or naval air force, and to embark on the amphibious transport/assault ship HMS Rotterdam. We present the report on our visits in two parts.

De Kooy, situated near Den Helder, about 30 mi (50 km) north-northeast of Amsterdam, has two squadrons. It is a bright day when we arrive at the headquarters building of 7 Sqdn. (VGSQ-7). A sign on the front of the building has a tally of the rescues the squadron has performed to that point. That day, the total was 1,178. The unit is a typical Dutch navy search and rescue squadron, operating the AgustaWestland Lynx above the North Sea.

At the squadron headquarters, we meet our escort officer, a Royal Dutch Marine and a Lynx pilot. A brief walk brings us to another building, which houses 860 Sqdn. (VSQ-860). Here our journey to HMS Rotterdam is to start.

This unit is the mother squadron of the Lynx helicopters embarked on the navy’s frigates. After instruction, we get a special safety suit to protect us from water and cold temperatures in case our aircraft is forced to land in the North Sea. We are issued other equipment — a swimsuit, a package with a small inflatable raft, and a helmet with a headset for communications with the helicopter crew. Not being used to such gear, it gives us pretty much the feeling of being an astronaut headed to the moon.

Once we are inside the Lynx and connected to the intercom, we can communicate with all the others on board. While listening to twin Rolls-Royce GEM 42 engines and rotor, the pilot is going through the preflight checklist. One check gives an unsatisfactory result and both pilots and the flight engineer decide to stay on the ground while a mechanic examines the problem. While we are waiting, we get a message from the Rotterdam: fire exercises are under way, and we will not get clearance to land on her deck until the evening. The flight is scrubbed, and demonstrating the importance of being flexible in naval flight operations. Instead of flying, we will head to the ship on a RHIB, a rigid-hull, inflatable boat from Den Helder harbor.

After we stow our photo equipment in large plastic bags to shield it from the sea spray, our boat leaves at full speed for the Rotterdam, which is positioning itself in the waters beyond the mouth of Den Helder’s harbor that are called Marsdiep, near the Isle of Texel. Upon reaching the ship, we scramble up rope-ladder hung from her side, an exercise that produces an adventurous feeling. Once we are on board, we are welcomed as "opstappers" — people picked up from a boat — and we introduce ourselves.

When the Netherlands’ national defence plan was presented on Prince’s Day (the third Tuesday in September) in 2003, it included a call for reviving the military’s amphibious assault and transport capabilities, not just in Europe but throughout the world. The focus was on acquiring a big amphibious ship. Today, a few decades after the aircraft carrier Karel Doorman was retired, the Dutch navy proudly employs a big ship again.

The HMS Rotterdam, Landing Platform Dock (LPD) 1, displaces 12,750 tons. While it is restricted to helicopter operations, the Rotterdam can support many flights. The ship can host several Lynx inside its hangar and has two landing spots. The Sea King and EH101 Merlin can land on her deck, but in a dual landing, one of those helicopters would have to be positioned with its tail rotor overboard. At this time, the Netherlands is building a second amphibious ship. LPD-2 will bear the name HMS Johan de Witt, and is scheduled to join the Rotterdam in the fleet this year.

Experiences with the Rotterdam have influenced the design of the Johan the Wit. The new ship will be fitted with a heavier deck to make it capable of deploying with the Boeing Chinook on board.

The Dutch navy acquired a total of 24 Lynx, in A, B, and C versions. They entered service in 1977 and can perform a few different missions — anti-submarine warfare, surveillance above the sea, and — in a special configuration — search and rescue.

The pilot sits in the cockpit’s right seat. In the left seat is the second pilot or tactical coordinator (called the "tacco"). The tacco leads tactical missions, but is not a pilot. Only one pilot is represent on such missions. On SAR missions, the Lynx crew has the standard two pilots.

On anti-submarine missions, the Lynx is configured with a dipping sonar and a sonar operator joins the crew in the back. In that case, there is no space for a hoist. Consequently, the helicopter cannot be used for saving lives. However, the configuration can be changed in a few hours. At any given time, roughly 21 Lynx are in use, all being upgraded to the SH-14D configuration with the more powerful, 1,200-shp Gem engines.

Training of Lynx pilots starts with eight months at the Nederlandse Luchtvaartschool (NLS) for is a theoretical course. Graduates earn their Air Traffic Pilot Licences (ATPLs). That is followed by a course is at Woensdrecht air base for 180 hr of flying in the Pilatus PC-7 of 131 Sqdn of the Elementaire Vliegopleidingen (EMVO), or elementary flying school, of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Klu). The next phase involves flying the Dornier Do-228 of the Kustwacht (Coast Guard) for 20 hr at NAS de Kooy. The first time trainees fly helicopters is when they head to Hato air base in Curacao for 35 hr of instruction in the Schweizer Aircraft 330 initially. Later, they get 35 hr in the Eurocopter AS355 Twin Star. Both of those types are operated for the navy by the civil company Heli Holland, but military instructors provide the training.

Eventually, cadets return to NAS de Kooy for conversion training on the Lynx. De Kooy has a full-motion flight simulator, the full-mission flight trainer (FMFT) that the Dutch share with Danish, Norwegian, German, and Portuguese crews. The facility is typically in use all the time. Software permits reconfiguration of the trainer to the needs of the different countries. CAE developed and supports this trainer.

Cadets that finish the course receive their wings after some 350 flying hours and three years of training.

The training covering techniques for escaping a helicopter that has ditched is provided in a special dunker facility. After the simulated ditchings, pilots are drilled in those skills

To be a good navy pilot requires some special abilities to challenge sometimes difficult circumstances. You have to be capable of doing more than following the rules; sometimes, you must make decisions as the ultimate authority. Often that is required under stressful conditions, forcing you to make life-or-death decisions not only for yourself but others.

The navy looks for good common sense and evaluate pilot candidates for that quality.

Outstanding flying skills are essential. Candidates must be able to approach and land on the deck of a ship in night conditions and manage the aircraft while crewmembers hoist people and payloads from the sea or a ship. Such skills are evaluated strictly, and any pilot whose skills appear deficient must re-qualify on the skill with an instructor.

The Dutch navy traditionally has aircrews exercise for several hours at NAS Culdrose in the United Kingdom. This training concerns predominantly anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.

The career of a Lynx pilot starts with 7 Sqdn. in Den Helder. A new pilots first serves as a copilot on SAR missions, in which he is responsible for communications with other aircraft and the mission director in the Coast Guard facility in Den Helder.

Then he is charged with planning a mission and navigating during it. This includes finding an appropriate hospital to treat the injuries of those rescue and finding refuelling sites, which might be at a offshore facility. The pilot stays in command of the whole mission, while the copilot assists with all other types of support, varying from transport to support of special forces.

A copilot can qualified as pilot on SAR missions after 1.5 year of flying. Becoming a pilot requires an additional month’s training in Canada, which leads to ship qualification.

Thereafter, the pilot will join 860 Sqdn., which deploys Lynx on frigates. Deployments can be from one month to seven months. After that, there is the possibility of becoming an instructor on the helicopter or simulator. That assignment normally lasts 2-3 years.

After another tour on ships, a pilot typically has fulfilled his contract. At that point, the pilot can leaved the Navy or transition to the Do-228 of the Coast Guard.

On the evening of our visit, we observed some action toward the bow of the ship. A Lynx hovered nearby with a heli-redder (rescuer) dancing in the air on the hoist cable. When he was low enough, the Lynx maneuvered above the deck and drops him. One by one, more rescuemen, called "kikkers," were dropped the same way. Without using night-vision goggles, the pilot must concentrate during such maneuvers. Everything around him is black. Besides some green lights, everything was dark on the deck. Signal lights above the radar section warned other ships that flight operations were in progress. With a repeat of the actions, the heaving-in line was used in the so-called Norwegian method. The Lynx approached at 30 ft (50 at night) and headed into the wind for extra power. An 11-lb (5-kg) sandbag was dropped to the deck, to which the hoist cable was connected. After that, the Lynx hovered alongside while people were transported at an angle to the deck. When too many poles or antennas block a direct descent, this may be the only way.

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