Upgraded RAF Chinooks headed for Afghanistan

 - November 13, 2009, 6:52 PM

In September the UK defense ministry announced a contract to upgrade the Royal Air Force’s 46-strong Boeing Chinook support helicopter force. Known as Project Julius, and driven partly by the extraordinary demands of sustained operations in Afghanistan, the program consists of re-engining and a cockpit upgrade.

Since the RAF began its operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2006, the Chinooks have been working extremely hard, individual airframes notching up around four times the flight hours of their U.S. Army counterparts in-theater. Each Chinook is typically deployed for 12 months, during which time it will fly some 800 hours. When returned for servicing, each Chinook brings back vast quantities of sand with it, highlighting the maintenance challenges they face.

Operations routinely are challenged by multifaceted threats. The conditions are hot and high, and the Afghan night is one of the darkest flying environments in the world. The terrain is rough and dusty, the latter creating billowing clouds that obscure visibility. Add to that an aggressive and fleeting enemy that fires on the helicopters on a daily basis, and the Chinook operations are fraught with danger.
“Every mission is a near-miss; every landing is a crash-landing,” asserted Group Captain Andy Turner, commander of the UK Chinook force. The perils were highlighted in August, when two of the force were lost.

Engine and Avionics Upgrades
Project Julius covers two separate contracts. The first, for approximately $205 million, re-engines the fleet with Honeywell’s T55-L-714A. Rated at 5,069 hp for contingencies, and 4,168 hp for maximum continuous running, the Dash 714A provides between 16 and 20 percent more power than the existing engines, as well as being more fuel-efficient and having longer maintenance intervals. For the user, that equates to longer missions, reduced servicing requirements, more load capacity and better one-engine inoperable (OEI) performance, particularly at the high altitudes and in the hot summers experienced in Afghanistan.

Preceding the main contract, Vector Aerospace had already re-engined seven Chinooks for Afghan service under an Urgent Operational Requirement, and the aircraft have already demonstrated their improved capability in-theater. One of the helicopters lost in August was a re-engined machine. It was hit in the fin by a rocket-propelled grenade, that caused serious damage and knocking out one engine. The crew kept the aircraft flying, thanks in part to the improved OEI performance of the Dash 714A engine, enabling them to set down away from the hostile area to be picked up safely. The aircraft was subsequently destroyed to prevent it falling into Taliban hands.

Boeing is prime contractor for the second element of the upgrade, a $448 million fleetwide cockpit upgrade. Thales provides the new cockpit elements, which are based on the existing Top Deck hardware. The new cockpit system is aimed at greatly reducing pilot workload, especially in low-light conditions.

The main elements are a fully integrated display system, each pilot having two large color multifunction displays for primary flight, tactical, digital moving map and forward-looking infrared data/imagery. The cockpit is fully compatible with night-vision goggles. New avionics elements include a tailored mission suite, secure communications management and an onboard mission planning system that allows the crew to re-plan in flight.

Thales has devised the new system working closely with aircrew. The system was refined and tested in the company’s Raynes Park laboratory in the UK and will be tested with increasing complexity throughout next year, leading to final trials at Boscombe Down.

The upgrade is essentially a digital bolt-on to an analog aircraft, but has been devised to offer significant growth potential. The architecture provides gateways for the integration of additional digital systems and functions. With a scheduled out-of-service date of 2040, the Chinook fleet may yet undergo another major upgrade to install a digital flight control system. Thales has mapped out a potential fully digital cockpit to accommodate this, with two additional screens showing engine, air vehicle and electronic warfare displays.

Conversions are being performed by Vector Aerospace at its Fleetlands facility as part of the natural cycle of maintenance. The first aircraft has already been delivered and is being prepared to accept the new cockpit. The first upgraded aircraft is to be ready for deployment at the end of 2011, following crew training. The program covering all 46 RAF Chinooks is due for completion in 2014 or 2015.

Further Modifications
While Julius represents a major upgrade to the Chinook’s capability, further modifications are being actively pursued, driven by the demands of current operations. The highest priority is providing a means of countering the very real dangers of “brown-out” conditions. The UK’s low-visibility landing program is examining a range of technologies–infrared, laser, millimeter-wave radar, detailed terrain data and helmet-mounted displays–to aid pilots landing in dangerous conditions.

Hostile small-arms fire indication is another area under study. The Thales Elix-IR missile approach warning system has been refined to the point where it can detect small-arms fire, as well as provide an imaging capability that may aid low-visibility landing. Ultra Electronics is also achieving promising results with its small acoustics-based gunfire detector and is proposing the use of an array on helicopters.

Meanwhile, the fleet is to be expanded by the eventual delivery of the so-called “Boscombe Eight.” These aircraft were ordered as special forces’ Chinook HC.Mk 3s but could not be released for service. In December 2007 a Mk 3 reversion program was initiated to reconfigure the eight aircraft to Mk 2/2A standard, and the first three are to be delivered before the end of the year. The other five are to follow next year, supporting the UK MoD’s campaign to double its lift capability in-theater by next spring, which also involves the deployment of Merlin helicopters.

As well as the Chinook upgrade, and as part of the overall upgrade of the RAF’s support helicopter force, the MoD signed a $352 million contract in September with Eurocopter for a life-extension program covering 28 Puma HC.Mk 1 helicopters. The work is to be undertaken in Romania and involves new avionics, glass cockpit and re-engining with the Turbomeca Makila 1A1. However, the procurement of the Future Medium Helicopter to replace the Puma has been stalled, while a mooted Sea King life extension is now unlikely to proceed.