RNZAF modernisation reaches first milestone with 757 re-delivery

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The Royal New Zealand Air Force received on 4 August the first of two newly modified Boeing 757-200 multi-mission aircraft, marking a new chapter in its long-standing six-tier modernisation programme.

New Zealand officials say the modernisation programme will reach other key milestones late this year and early next year when the air force receives the first of five upgraded Lockheed Martin C-130H transports and the first of eight new NH Industries NH90 medium utility helicopters, respectively.

The RNZAF embarked on an extensive modernisation programme early this decade when it identified plans to upgrade three existing platforms and acquire three new platforms while dropping its combat capability. Its fleet of 757s, C-130Hs and Lockheed Martin P-3K maritime patrol aircraft are now in the process of being upgraded while eight NH90s and five new AgustaWestland A109 training and light utility helicopters are being acquired.

The launch of the sixth and final element of the programme, advanced fixed-wing trainers, has been delayed several times and is finally expected to move forward with a tender by the end of September.

The A109s are scheduled to be delivered from 2010 while the first NH90 is to be handed over to the RNZAF in the first quarter of 2009, according to assistant secretary of defence Kevin McHamon. But McHamon says "it will likely be a few years" before any NH90 is flying in New Zealand because the first units will initially stay in Europe, where they will be used for flight testing and training.

McHamon expects the first of six upgraded P-3Ks to be redelivered by the end of next year. The first P-3K, which is being outfitted with new mission, communications and navigation systems at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems in Texas, was originally to be redelivered early this year.

McHamon says the first C-130H, which was also supposed to be redelivered early this year, is now scheduled to be handed over in the fourth quarter. He says two of the air force's five C-130s are now at L-3 Communications Spar Aerospace's facility in Canada, where they are undergoing life-extension modifications and receiving electronic warfare self-protection suites.

The RNZAF expects its second C-130H to be redelivered by Spar in the first quarter of next year. McHamon says the air force plans to deliver the third aircraft to New Zealand's Safe Air, which will perform the remaining three C-130 and five P-3 upgrades in-country, in the fourth quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, ST Aero is halfway through converting the RNZAF's second 757 and plans to redeliver the aircraft late this year. This programme, which involves installing a cargo door, a crew access ladder, airstairs unit and military avionics, is also running more than one year behind its original schedule. RNZAF deputy chief Air Commodore Dick Newlands says the air force "has been able to get around the shortfall" caused by the delays to the 757 and C-130 upgrade programmes by using more commercial charters.

The RNZAF will now be able to operate the aircraft in an all-passenger configuration with 142 economy and 18 business-class seats or in an all-cargo configuration with 11 pallet positions. It can now also be operated in a variety of mixed configurations, including 138 seats plus two pallets, and be used for aeromedical evacuations.

Newlands says the modified 757 will give the air force the ability to fly larger payloads into remote places such as the Solomon Islands. He says the aircraft will also be able to take on additional missions. This is the general theme of the service's modernisation programme as the P-3 and C-130 will be able to take on additional missions following redelivery. "It gives us much more of a multi-role capability," Newlands says. "It's certainly moving the air force forward."