UK Royal Air Force outlines plans for major Chinook upgrade

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The UK Royal Air Force plans to upgrade its entire fleet of Boeing CH-47 transport helicopters to a standard configuration from late 2009, with the modernised type likely to be dubbed the HC4, says Chinook force commander Gp Capt Andy Turner.

Full details of the Chinook capability upgrade have yet to be finalised, along with funding approvals, but key elements will include a standardised glass cockpit with head-up displays and new navigation and night vision equipment, says Turner. A radio upgrade will provide connectivity with the British Army's Bowman battlefield communications system, and the aircraft will also receive a "refined" defensive aids system.

 
© Craig Hoyle/Flight International

The work will be embodied with the service's current 40 Chinook HC2/2As (one pictured above), plus its eight extended-range HC3s; the first of which are entering a "reversion" programme to clear them for use after being kept in storage since 2001. "We will have a single, coherent fleet, with one aircraft standard and one pilot qualification," says Turner.

With 40% of the current fleet deployed on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the RAF's Chinook force is maintaining a commitment of 10 and one aircraft, respectively, the additional eight aircraft will provide vital extra capacity during the upgrade period, according to Turner.

A parallel effort to increase the number of hours flown by the current aircraft is also now paying off, with the fleet on track to meet its target of delivering 16,000 flight hours this year including 7,200h in Afghanistan and Iraq: up from 12,000h in 2006.

 
© Crown Copyright

"We are now flying the 16,000h rate, and have been for the last four months," says Turner, who reveals that aircraft in Afghanistan are now logging a combined 550h a month, performing tasks including troop transport and equipment resupply. "Our role is hugely flexible," he says, while also describing the Chinook as "a war-winning capability". But responding to criticism that the UK should send more helicopters to the country, he adds: "The quantity at the moment is the maximum we can endure with."

The RAF also plans to within the next six months extend the periods between scheduled service intervals by 33% to further increase fleet availability, with this and the additional eight aircraft (three pictured below) to boost operations to 18,500h in 2010. "The net number of hours to the fleet won't change, but the pressure will be less," says Turner.

 
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With the UK's Chinook force heavily committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the RAF intends to address the risk of possible "skills-fade" in other areas. The service is now planning to conduct training in littoral and amphibious manoeuvres, and in jungle and arctic operations, says Turner.

The UK expects to operate its Chinooks until at least 2040, according to a through-life customer support deal signed with Boeing in 2006.

Preparations are meanwhile under way in the UK to support crew training activities for Canada's future fleet of CH-47Fs. One Canadian exchange pilot will join 18 Sqn at RAF Odiham, Hampshire in September, while a further two student pilots and two rear crew members will begin training at the base during the same month.