The NH90 is an advanced medium utility helicopter, capable of undertaking a wide variety of roles in New Zealand and overseas.
The RNZAF is introducing eight NH90 helicopters to replace the Iroquois fleet; four have been delivered, two more arrived in July 2013—but have yet to be formally handed over by the manufacturer—and the final two are expected in 2014.
The NH90 is a product of more than 10 years of development and testing to meet stringent capability and low maintenance requirements.
The Iroquois has been in RNZAF service since 1966. During the late 1990s the Air Force considered options to improve the NZDF’s utility helicopter capability. The key issues driving this consideration were:
- airframe fatigue problems (including fin spars and rotor blades)
- equipment obsolescence, and
- limited performance in tropical conditions.
The Iroquois’ limitations in East Timor between 1999 and 2002 reinforced the need for urgent action. The Defence Statement of May 2001 noted that the "Iroquois helicopter fleet will be upgraded or replaced". A Force Development Proposal (FDP) identified the requirement for a new capability to meet both military and whole of government needs. That was accepted by Government, and the Iroquois replacement project was incorporated into the NZDF Long Term Development Plan (LTDP).
When the Sioux replacement project began work in parallel, it became clear that there were synergies between the two projects and the two were combined into an NZDF Helicopter Capability project. From this separate specifications for a Medium Utility helicopter (MUH) and a Training/Light Utility Helicopter (T/LUH) were identified.
Medium Utility Helicopter
An initial approach to industry was made in early 2004 which resulted in a number of aircraft being considered. Following a period of evaluation and due diligence, the Government announced on 31 March 2005 that the NH90 helicopter provided by NATO Helicopter Industries (NHI) was the preferred solution for the Medium Utility Helicopter requirement. A contract for the acquisition of eight operational NH90 helicopters, spares, logistics support and training was signed on 31 July 2006.
While the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is responsible for the acquisition project, the NZDF’s Capability Branch has responsibility for the Introduction into Service (IIS) of the MUH. This IIS task covers both logistics and operational considerations, and includes the conduct of Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E).
The Ministry of Defence acquisition division has a Resident Project Team based at the Eurocopter manufacturing plant for the NZ NH90s in Marignane, France. This team, which includes seconded RNZAF personnel, is responsible for managing the ongoing acquisition project and maintaining oversight of the development and production activities.
In parallel with the Ministry of Defence acquisition project, the NZDF has formed a number of teams to manage the Introduction Into Service (IIS) of NH90. The Directorate of Project Engineering and Certification includes a team of technical staff managing the through life support and logistics aspects of the NH90 IIS while the Helicopter Transition Unit (HTU) manages the operational aspects. The HTU was established to separate the conduct of IIS activities from current operational outputs (which are being sustained by No 3 Squadron using the UH-1H Iroquois). The DPEC and HTU units work closely with the NZDF Capability Branch within a Joint Project Office construct to ensure that all IIS activities are efficiently and effectively carried out. Once both the A109LUH and NH90 have achieved milestone capability levels, the HTU will be disbanded and its operations will be subsumed by No 3 Squadron.
RNZAF maintenance staff and aircrew completed training at the manufacturer’s facilities in France ahead of the deliveries of the initial aircraft to New Zealand. The first NH90 aircraft arrived in New Zealand at RNZAF Ohakea in December 2011. Currently four aircraft are in use at Ohakea conducting a variety of flying activities. Crew training is being conducted along with Trials and Development (T&D) flying. The T&D flying is used to confirm that the necessary aircraft and crew standard operating procedures and logistic support are developed to the level required to undertake the various tasks that the aircraft are required to perform. After each flying serial, test results are recorded and considered and findings are fed back into amended procedures. When T&D is deemed to be finalised, Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) flights are conducted under independent scrutiny to confirm that the procedures developed during T&D are both safe and effective. Although time consuming, this process is critical to the safe and proper introduction to service for our aircraft.
Currently, the NH90 is flying non-tactical transport operations within New Zealand and crews are working up the tactical transport procedures to support other agencies in an operational environment. Development work will be ongoing over coming years as progressively more advanced capabilities are trialled and introduced to service in order that the NH90 can undertake the full range of roles, tasks and missions that Government require. The completion of OT&E is expected by early 2015.