IN FOCUS: KAI's Surion helicopter comes of age

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The Korea Aerospace Industries KUH-1 Surion helicopter has had a pivotal year in 2013. After years of development, the South Korean type was finally inducted into the Army Aviation School in Nonsan. Its service entry followed 2,000 flight tests and 2,700 flying hours.

By the end of 2013, KAI will have delivered 26 examples to the South Korean army. In total, the force will receive 200 Surions, which will eventually replace its Bell UH-1H Hueys and MD Helicopters MD 500s.

The adoption of South Korea’s first indigenous helicopter, which was co-developed with Eurocopter, has not been smooth, however. In 2012, numerous South Korean media reports raised questions about the type’s ability to operate effectively in extreme cold-weather conditions; an important consideration given the Korean peninsula’s harsh winters.

To assuage these doubts, in December 2012 KAI dispatched a 50-person team to the US state of Alaska, where the Surion spent 50 days and underwent 50 flight tests in conditions below -32˚C (˚F). One problem during the tests was that temperatures were abnormally high for the time of year, meaning the team was obliged to travel to locations that were experiencing extreme cold weather.

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Korea Aerospace Industries

“The Alaska tests proved that the Surion can operate in cold-weather countries,” says KAI.

Aside from becoming the workhorse helicopter of the South Korean army, the Surion is also likely to find adoption among the country’s other service arms and in the parapublic sector.

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Korea Aerospace Industries

In April 2013, KAI announced that Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration had selected the company as “the primary negotiator for the development of the amphibious task helicopter system”.

South Korea’s marines will receive around 40 of the planned variant. The development programme is worth South Korean won (W) 800 billion ($713 million) and will enhance the marines' ability to transport troops and equipment in the littoral environment. KAI commenced development of the variant in July, and should complete it by the end of 2015, before launching production.

Key modifications will include an integrated flotation system, an auxiliary fuel tank and specialised radio equipment. KAI will also obtain type certification for the new variant.

The aircraft is likely to operate from the South Korean navy's Dokdo-class assault ships, which can each carry up to 15 helicopters.Seoulhas received two of the vessels, and plans to have an eventual fleet of four.

South Korea’s navy is also studying the acquisition of a new anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare helicopter, although it has yet to outline a formal requirement. The studies follow Seoul’s decision in January 2013 to obtain the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat, which will start replacing the force’s legacy fleet of 24 Lynx 99/99A helicopters.

At 8.7t, the Surion is larger than the 6t AW159. During the Seoul air show in 2011, KAI and Eurocopter proposed a naval variant of the Surion for use aboard ships displacing 2,500t or more, but it is unclear whether the South Korean navy would want to operate two different types of helicopter from its warships.

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Korea Aerospace Industries

South Korea's air force is also studying the type to fill the combat search and rescue role, while KAI, in co-operation with Eurocopter, has also pitched the Surion to overseas customers.

“During the last two years we’ve met several customers overseas,” says a KAI executive. “We’ve received requests for proposal and responded to proposals from one south American country, two Asian countries and one eastern European country. We have a good relationship with Eurocopter and they help us with the export campaigns. We even go on sales calls together.”