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PICTURE: UK's first Project 'Julius' Chinook returns to the sky

The Project "Julius" upgrade to the UK Royal Air Force's Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter fleet has advanced to the flight-test phase, with the first modified example to be ready for operational use late this year.

Equipped with a modified cockpit and other enhancements, 30-year-old Chinook HC2 ZA677 was returned to the air at Vector Aerospace's Fleetlands site in Hampshire on 9 December as a re-designated HC4 transport. It is the first of 46 in-service aircraft due to receive the modifications at the UK's depth maintenance site for the type.

© Vector Aerospace

"The first of the modified helicopters is expected to be available to commanders before the end of 2011," says David Pitchforth, managing director, Boeing UK Rotorcraft Support.

Work to prepare 38 Chinook HC4/4As will conclude in 2015, while an effort to adapt eight longer-range HC3-model aircraft as HC5s will wrap up the following year, the company says.

"Julius delivers important new capabilities which will be quickly used on operations in Afghanistan and beyond," says Chris White-Horne, future heavylift project leader for the UK Ministry of Defence.

Key elements of the upgrade programme include the introduction of an adapted Thales TopDeck cockpit with four new multifunction displays and a digital moving map, plus a tablet-based electronic flight bag. Worth more than £400 million ($638 million), the project will also lead to the fleet-wide use of Honeywell T55-714 engines.

Boeing says the enhancements "will provide improved situational awareness, increased safety and options for capability enhancement".

The RAF's Chinook fleet should eventually grow to 60 aircraft, with 14 new-build examples currently under contract.

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