One of the world’s "most advanced" maritime helicopters has entered service four months ahead of schedule, as the Royal Navy has expressed its delight with the type’s performance during a key exercise.

Nine of the UK’s upgraded AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2 rotorcraft took part in the four-week exercise “Deep Blue” last month, during which they amassed a combined 480 flight hours operating over the Atlantic from the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. The aircraft’s crews trained for anti-submarine warfare tasks and other activities, including maritime patrol and casualty evacuation, while proving the improved type’s capabilities.

Speaking at the show, RN helicopter force commander Cdr Ben Franklin said the first HM2 aircraft will be deployed to the Gulf later this year, and embarked there on a frigate during 2015. However, he adds that “they are available now”.

Approval for the HM2 to enter frontline use came on 30 June; four months earlier than expected, says Capt Ed Tritschler, Merlin team leader for the UK Defence Equipment and Support organisation. “The Deep Blue exercise shows that this will be a truly exceptional capability,” he adds.

A total of 30 Merlins will be upgraded from the original HM1 standard to the enhanced standard, which adds new glass cockpit avionics and new mission displays for its observers. The aircraft – 15 of which remain to be delivered – will also be equipped with electro-optical/infrared sensors.

“We look forward to delivering the last Mk 2 conversion next year,” says Simon Tate, managing director mission systems for Lockheed Martin UK. The aircraft are also to receive enhanced self-protection equipment, and “there are many other developments on the horizon,” he adds.

Meanwhile, flight test work involving two candidate airborne surveillance and control system payloads on offer to equip part of the HM2 fleet is to start soon. Lockheed – which has not disclosed its radar system partner after ending an arrangement with Northrop Grumman – will fly its proposal with a test aircraft “in the near future”, Tate says. A second test activity linked to Project Crowsnest will assess a mission system being offered by Thales.

Source: Flight Daily News