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IN FOCUS: NH90 Caiman cuts teeth with French navy

The product of an industrial collaboration between Eurocopter, Agusta­Westland and Fokker via the NH Industries (NHI) consortium, the NH90 has enjoyed remarkable sales success since its emergence on the market.

Order commitments have been signed by 13 nations for a combined 500-plus aircraft, with 149 of these having been delivered since production activities began in 2000.

With final assembly lines (FAL) in France and Germany and a 62.5% holding in NHI, Eurocopter has handed over more than half of the aircraft delivered to date, with 47 of these having left its Marignane site, near Marseille, by mid-May 2013. FAL manager Vincent Honde says the facility is capable of completing 22 NH90s per year, with examples now on the line for nations including France, New Zealand and Oman. In all, 28 aircraft were in the assembly process and two in flight test. Further assembly lines exist in Australia, Finland, Italy and Spain.

In late May, France's DGA defence procurement agency confirmed the latest deal, exercising an option for a second batch of 34 in the tactical transport helicopter (TTH) configuration for the nation's army. This followed an earlier deal for 34 of the same variant, plus 27 in the naval NFH version.

Despite the marked differences between the models in their intended roles and operating environments, the DGA's NH90 programme manager Col Arvind Badrinath points out that they share about 75% parts commonality. "This is a key benefit for support," he says.

The new deal with Paris comes at a key time for the programme, with the German government, NHI and Eurocopter in March agreeing a restructuring of Berlin's order. This cut a planned 122 transports to only 82, but added back 18 in the NFH configuration.

Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets database reveals France's armed forces have so far placed 11 composite-airframed NH90s into operational use: three TTH and eight NFH examples. After a restricted start, the latter version is now establishing itself with the French navy crews who fly the "Caiman".

Being acquired for use from Horizon- and FREMM-class frigates, the 11t-category NH90 is to progressively assume the tasks performed by the navy's Westland Lynx HAS2/4 helicopters, and retired Aérospatiale Super Frelons.

Four aircraft each are now assigned to two units in France: 33 Sqn at Lanvéoc and 31 Sqn in Hyères. Delivered from May 2010, the first seven were accepted in an interim "Step A" standard, which achieved in-service status for search and rescue and maritime counter-terrorism duties in December 2011. The eighth was transferred 12 months later in the more capable Step B version, and two more should follow per year until 2021.

The newest NFH features equipment which will enable it to undertake anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare tasks, including a new radar, and chaff and flare dispensers. It should also "this summer" gain the ability to carry two MU90 torpedoes, and a pintle-mounted machine gun for counter-piracy tasks.

Each crew comprises a pilot, observer and sensor operator, plus up to 14 passengers. In late 2012, the navy approved initial capability for the aircraft to support anti-surface operations, and cleared the same milestone earlier this year for anti-submarine warfare duties.

The service has now accumulated over 3,300 flying hours, and rescued more than 70 people during 76 search and rescue missions.

Reformed in October 2012 and primarily tasked with conducting operational evaluation work, plus crew training, 31 Sqn's eight crews are performing trials with the NH90's Thales Flash active dipping sonar and sonobuoys, says officer commanding Lt Col Lionel Le Boursicot. In earlier surface search trials, the NFH's radar covered an area within 30min that the navy's Eurocopter AS565 Panther would need 2h 30min to cover.

"The people who are going to task us will have to bear in mind that with the NH90, you have to change the scale of the combat scene," Le Boursicot says, adding that its Link 11 data link also allows crews "to really get a very good idea of the tactical situation".

"In terms of capacity, we are really convinced that the NH90 is going to be a very good combat helicopter," he says. "We still have to tick the boxes training on this system, but we are quite confident, and so far it has definitely matched our expectation."

"The NFH had some difficulties in the past, however, now it's back on schedule. The TTH is totally on schedule," Badrinath says.


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