The UK's recent combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has emphasised the operational flexibility provided by the country's ability to operate its battlefield transport and combat helicopters in an amphibious role from a variety of naval vessels.

While conceived as a battlefield asset, the Boeing/Westland Apache AH1 attack helicopter has already gone some way to proving its future worth in such operations, having completed an initial series of ship-based trials. Conducted earlier this year using the Royal Navy's helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, these ship-helicopter operating limit (SHOL) trials involved around 600 landings by the Apache in a variety of sea states.

As well as assessing the aircraft's ability to be deployed on the vessel, this initial work also looked at its corrosion resistance and demonstrated the Apache's manual blade-fold system, which enables its rotors to be stowed within 20min saving valuable deck space while aboard the ship. The work also assessed the effects on the aircraft's Longbow fire-control radar of electromagnetic interference generated by ship systems.

A further four to five weeks of SHOL trials are set to start later this year aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ship Argus. The Apache is expected to achieve an initial maritime operating capability to operate from RN and RFA vessels next year with further work to expand its clearance for future embarked operations.

The full extent of the Apache's suitability for maritime operations had been questioned because of the aircraft's tricycle undercarriage, underslung 30mm cannon and mast-mounted radar.

However, AgustaWestland now believes the aircraft could receive clearance to operate across a similar range of conditions to the navy's venerable Westland Sea King utility helicopter.

Source: Flight International