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Monday, May 1, 2006

PacRim Notebook

Barney O'Shea

Times Are Changing

Change is afoot in many aspects of the rotorcraft industry in Australia. Australian Defence Force Chinooks have begun operations in Afghanistan as the leadership eyes transforming the military to a fast, hard-hitting, flexible force. On the civilian side, the nation's aviation regulator is pushing night-vision goggles and other safety initiatives. Most recently, the leadership of the rotorcraft industry's trade group shifted.

Based at Kandahar Airfield, the 110 personnel of the Australian Aviation Task Group and their two Chinooks began operations in Afghanistan April 6 as part of Task Force Knighthawk. The Australian helicopters are providing troop lift, moving heavy equipment and providing transport and medevacs

Prior to deployment, the Chinooks underwent a major modification program to address some shortcomings seen during their previous deployment to Iraq and to make sure they conform to U.S. Army CH-47s. The Australian aircraft are drawn from the 5th Aviation Regiment

The Australian mission is supporting the Australian Special Operations Task Group already operating in Afghanistan. They may remain deployed until late November to support the Australian Reconstruction Team that is to deploy to Afghanistan later this year.

The Defence Update unveiled in mid-December, while not mentioning helicopters, emphasized "a fast, hard hitting, mobile and flexible force." At the same time, the document (based on a review of Australia's national security) called for an increase in the strength of the army to form three independent task forces. Each task force would have its own armor, engineers, aviation and full support. Given that one squadron of Black Hawks has been allocated to special forces, the Navy has had its Sea kings grounded, and there will be only two squadrons of the ARH Tiger and one of the MRH90 for additional troop lift, there appear to be some limitations.

The Sea King has been overworked for years and has been supporting the LPAs, the replenishment vessels and HMAS Tobruk. With them grounded, the only helos available for these ships are Sea Hawks and Sea Sprites, with quite a diversity in lift.

The Sea King replacement is under consideration under Project Air 9000, but no decision has been made just yet. It could become logical to replace the Sea Kings earlier, with the Navy manning the current LPAs, which use four Sea King/Black Hawk types. The Army's Black Hawks are not marinized and do not have the quick-folding blades, so, although they are very capable machines, they are not the preferred options for maritime work.

With three task forces, it is extremely unlikely that all would be in action at once, although the force development is designed to give the Army the capability to work two fronts at once. One can only surmise what will be done, as the Black Hawks have been in service some 15 years without any significant updating, which in the future will also bring problems.

On the civil side, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has been undergoing traumatic changes, as promised by its CEO, Bruce Byron, at last July's significant Heli Pacific Conference in Coolum.

The Australian equivalent to FAA, the organization is discussing a number of matters. One that is seen as providing the capability at least cost for safe flight night visual conditions, are night-vision goggles, which can be more appropriate and less costly than an instrument flying system on a helicopter. The emphasis being on safety, an immediate improvement if implemented properly would be the use of NVGs, especially for the low-level work into unknown landing places, common to helicopter emergency medical services work.

Just getting NVGs is not enough; the aircraft has to be modified to make the instrumentation compatible to the goggles. The Victorian Police Air Wing, operating late-model twin-engine Eurocopter Dauphins, provides around-the-clock helicopter ambulance and police support. They have been working on trials and training with NVGs with a view to obtaining CASA approval when aircraft are modified and training is finished.

The Helicopter Assn. of Australasia (HAA) is working with CASA on this to achieve a common standard. It would appear that each organization would have to have its operation and system approved independently, subject to final formulation of common guidelines.

Not the least of the recent changes in the industry was the departure of the HAA president, Rob Rich, from that group and, apparently, from the industry.

With his departure, Rosemarie MacRae has assumed the president's duties. Whirly Girl No. 530, she became a mustering pilot after completing her helicopter license. Over 24 years, she has flown 13,000 hr. in helicopters and 500 in airplanes.

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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