Flying commercially owned machines in hostile zones may also be considered

The UK Ministry of Defence plans to increase its use of leased civil-type helicopters, although questions remain about their impact on deployability, mission effectiveness and air crew retention.

The UK armed forces currently use 65 commercially owned, military-registered (COMR) helicopters, representing around 10% of their total inventory of almost 700 rotorcraft. Their use has been driven by budget constraints imposed since the early 1990s – a trend which the Defence Logistics Organisation’s helicopter and Islander combined integrated project team leader Cdr Nick Blackman believes is likely to continue.

COMR deals are required to strike a delicate balance between providing military utility and commercial profits. Flown by military personnel, the aircraft are owned and maintained by the lessor to civilian certification standards, making it easier to return them to commercial use once the lease agreement expires.

The bulk of the UK’s COMR deals to date have been to equip its Defence Helicopter Flying School, but a growing number are being forward-based in non-combat roles. Four Griffin HAR2s – Bell 412EPs – are based in Cyprus to conduct search-and-rescue tasks, having replaced Royal Air Force Westland Wessex. Commercially owned helicopters are also based in Bahrain and Belize and this list may soon be expanded, with the RAF’s lone Boeing CH-47 Chinook in the Falkland Islands considered a prime candidate for a COMR replacement.

The MoD has until now avoided employing COMR aircraft in more dangerous roles, such as supporting or participating in combat operations. But this policy may also be about to change, with confidence having grown following the participation of one Bell 212 earlier this year to support tsunami relief efforts in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Although this exceeded the terms of the lease agreement, the lessor quickly agreed to allow its civilian maintainers to deploy with the military aircrew.

Whether the same opportunity exists to replace operational helicopters deployed in potentially hostile zones such as Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq is now being reviewed, Blackman told Tangent Link’s “COMR delivers for defence” conference near Cambridge.

A key consideration is not the willingness of civilian employees to support such deployments, but the reaction from insurance companies. But with commercial flights expected to resume in Iraq in the near future, these appear likely to accept the risk.

Source: Flight International