Portugal’s fleet of AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin helicopters, used for search and rescue (SAR) operations across a huge expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, is being prevented from reaching higher levels of readiness due to problems with the support of the type’s Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines.
At present, five of the 12-aircraft fleet operated by the Portuguese air force’s 751 Sqn are out of service, either due to the unavailability of engines or spare parts for them, says AgustaWestland’s Nick Green, who runs sustainment activities for the nation’s Merlin fleet from Montijo air base near Lisbon.
“It has been pretty consistent for the past 12 months,” he says. “We have finished our maintenance [on the helicopters], but we can’t conduct flight tests due to a lack of engines.”
Availability of the five aircraft based at Montijo in 2012 was at 70%, with a similar figure achieved so far this year, says the manufacturer.
The issue stems partly from Portugal’s tardiness in contracting out the maintenance provision for the helicopters. Although it received the 12 aircraft over a two-year period beginning in 2004, it took until 2008 for Lisbon to partner with AgustaWestland and a number of local companies to provide sustainment capability, excluding powerplants, for the fleet.
That delay also affected engine overhaul, and meant a backlog of powerplants requiring attention had built up by the time the R-R/Turbomeca joint venture was brought in.
Although aircraft availability has yet to impact the squadron operationally, there are concerns that unless the problem is solved quickly things may worsen over the next couple of years.
Turbomeca says it will work to improve its service to Lisbon. It says: "On Sept 2, Turbomeca closed the acquisition of Rolls-Royce’s 50% share in the RTM322 engine. In that context, Turbomeca is committed to work closely with customers to improve the quality of service and [turnaround time]. Among our initiatives, a dedicated RTM322 customer symposium will take place in October."
The squadron has already had to cope with a reduced budget thanks to Portugal’s straitened economic circumstances. This has seen annual flight hours cut from 2,250h to 1,750h, of which training accounts for around half.
SAR missions have not been affected, instead training sorties have been made more efficient to ensure the most is made of the time available.
Next year’s budget, however, is likely to remain stable, as Portugal looks to ring-fence what it considers a vital public service.
751 Sqn provides SAR and medical evacuation cover across more than 6 million km² of ocean – the largest area in Europe – from bases in Montijo, Lajes in the Azores and Porto Santo on Madiera. Since its inception in 1978 it has saved more than 2,916 lives, it says.
The AgustaWestland-led sustainment operation, meanwhile, has undertaken a number of modifications to the aircraft in order to reduce downtime.
These include a change to part of the tail rotor assembly, which has increased service intervals from 100h to 200h, and the installation of additional drains in the rear of the fuselage to prevent corrosion caused by salt water ingress.