Unexpected problems encountered during a NZ$700 million ($562 million) upgrade to New Zealand's transport, cargo and surveillance aircraft will result in a delay of up to nine months in their return to service.

"We have faced problems in the upgrades for all three types of aircraft. These were encountered at the facilities where the upgrades are taking place," says the defence ministry. "Even though we did not expect the delays, it does not worry us too much."

New Zealand's support for coalition forces in Afghanistan could be hindered by the delays, given that the service's Lockheed Martin P-3K Orions and C-130H transports have been occasionally deployed as part of these efforts. The ministry, however, says that it could use civilian aircraft if needed.

The first of five C-130s, which are undergoing life-extension modifications in Canada by L-3 Communications Spar Aerospace, is now expected to return in the third quarter of 2008 - almost six months later than planned. The ministry was unable to say what led to the delay. The aircraft will also be fitted with electronic warfare self-protection system suites as part of an effort to keep them operational until at least 2017.

The first of two Boeing 757-200 transports, which are having large cargo doors and multirole spaces fitted by Singapore Technologies Aerospace's facility in Mobile, Alabama, is now expected back in mid-2008 - also a six-month delay. The ministry says that this is because corrosion has been unexpectedly found in some parts of the aircraft. As part of the upgrade, ST Aero will also refurbish the engines and install new military satellite communication systems.

L-3 is also upgrading the communications, navigation and mission systems for one of New Zealand's six P-3Ks, but the delivery has been delayed by around nine months until January 2009. Air New Zealand subsidiary Safe Air will complete the work on the remaining P-3s. "It is complex work, involving replacing all the existing systems with state-of the art avionics, radar, sensors and communications systems," says the ministry.

The upgrades are part of the air force's plan to refurbish its ageing fleets. New Zealand ordered five AgustaWestland A109s last year for its training and light utility helicopter requirements, and in 2005 ordered eight NH Industries NH90 multirole helicopters, and the defence ministry says the delivery of these aircraft is on schedule. The service does not have a strike capability, after the government cancelled the purchase of Lockheed F-16s in 2001, and later retired its McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and Aermacchi MB339s.

Source: Flight International