Europe's NH Industries consortium is ramping up customer deliveries of the NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopter and naval NFH variant, following delays caused by technical and programme issues.
Italy and Germany, whose army aviation branches are the two leading customers for the TTH version, will receive their first operational-standard helicopters this year, with first deliveries of full operational capability aircraft in the second half of 2010.
"Having adopted the initial operational capability [IOC] helicopters for training activities in 2006 and 2007, the two customers are now in the process of receiving the IOC+ model, after it recently gained military type certification," says Domenico Vaccari, NH90 programme vice-president.
The new model is capable of operating under ISA +35°C (95°F) temperature conditions, and features a complete de-icing system and rear-ramp utilisation. Italian army examples are equipped to carry Oto Melara pintle-mounted 7.62mm Dillon M-134D gatling guns at their lateral doors.
"Deliveries to German and Italian army aviation of four and seven helicopters respectively have just started, and are expected to be complete before year-end," says Vaccari. These will complement the services' current fleets of eight and four IOC-standard aircraft.
The global fleet of NH90 tactical transport and naval helicopters has now passed 5,000 flight hours, including more than 1,000h logged by Italian army aviation after one year of training and operational activities. Italy lost another example in an accident last year.
Due to continuing negotiations for FOC version capabilities, the customers agreed in late 2008 to introduce an interim IOC+Enhanced version, says Vaccari. This allowed them to acquire helicopters and gain experience, while helping NHI fill the gap in manufacturing and assembly activities. The IOC+Enhanced standard introduces ballistic protection, manual chaff and flare activation for the Italian army and tactical navigation system improvements common with the programme's Step A naval version. "Deliveries of the IOC+Enhanced interim combat version are expected to begin this autumn," Vaccari says.
NHI delivered 25 NH90s between 2006 and 2008, also including six for the Finnish army, five in the MRH90 configuration for the Australian Army and two Swedish examples equipped with a higher cabin.
"In 2009 we expect to deliver up to 42 helicopters, including those aircraft not handed over in 2008 due to military type certification delays," Vaccari says. This will include six for the Royal Air Force of Oman, the first four examples for the German air force and also the first TTH for the Greek army.
In order to resolve technical problems and also meet customer demand for delivery of NFH aircraft this year, Vaccari says a stepped approach has been proposed to the nations via the NATO Helicopter Management Agency. "The formal acceptance of this approach was obtained in 2008 from the Dutch and French navies. Discussions are ongoing with the Italian navy, linked to General Electric T700 engines and transmission upgrade tests for a maximum gross weight qualification at 11t, in addition to full vessel-embarked capabilities." However, the Italian navy still expects to take deliveries of a fully capable version only from 2011.
In addition to platform features which will enable it to operate from naval vessels in high sea states, the basic NFH version is equipped with a surface search radar, forward-looking infrared/electro-optical sensor turret and electronic support measures. Its dipping sonar and acoustic sonobuoys will be managed using an integrated acoustics processor package by one mission console operator.
Development of the NFH version has been hampered by undercarriage, platform weight, surface radar and tactical navigation system problems.
"Solutions have been identified for all issues, and final curing activities are on the way," says Vaccari. "A strengthened undercarriage has already been introduced, while the maximum gross take-off weight has been elevated from 10,600kg (23,400lb) to 11,000kg." In addition to a weight reduction programme, this margin has been maintained by augmenting the aircraft's engine, main and tail rotor revolutions per minute, he adds.
A French NFH90 powered by Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca RTM 322-01/9 engines completed a test campaign in April at the new MTOW, while an Italian example powered by General Electric/Avio T700/T61E1s began activities in March. Final certification is planned for early 2010, according to Vaccari. Tactical navigation system improvements have already undergone flight evaluation, while a roadmap has been developed to resolve the ENR surface radar problem with a package of enhancements.
"According to the phased capabilities delivery plan, the Step A, or meaningful operational capability standard, which is to be qualified by autumn 2009, will have undercarriage, propulsion and dynamic complex improvements, as well as tactical navigation functionalities very near to the original FOC requirements, and an initial operational-capable surface radar," says Vaccari.
"The qualification target for the first naval version customer in the Step A configuration, the Royal Netherlands Navy, is planned for September this year, with first ready-for-acceptance delivery targeted for December," Vaccari says.
In the Netherlands, flying activities are due to start next month and a new flight simulator to be available in Italy during 2011. "The French navy configuration is to complete certification in November, while Norway is to follow in February 2010," Vaccari says.
A Step B, or FOC-standard aircraft, with up-to-date tactical navigation equipment, is planned for qualification in mid-2011. Its fully capable surface radar to be available in the second half of 2012. Covering small target detection at short range and high sea states and obsolescence improvements, the latter modification programme is currently under approval.
With steps in place to deliver operational-level aircraft to its existing customers, NHI is also pursuing further fresh sales of the type. Negotiations are continuing with Qatar over a proposed deal to supply both NH90 versions to the nation's armed forces. Further opportunities include ongoing bids with the navies of Australia, Denmark, Germany and India for 27, 6, 30 and 16 NFH90s respectively.