Some 24 years after the first prototype completed its maiden flight in December 1995, the NH Industries (NHI) NH90 is in widespread service. But the medium-twin helicopter is still winning new export orders and starting to earn a reputation for operational effectiveness and reliability.
This reputation has been hard won after a lengthy development program and a difficult entry into service with several operators, during which numerous deficiencies and flaws were exposed. For many years, the NH90 was the subject of largely negative press coverage.
But the NH90 being exhibited this week at Paris Le Bourget is today rightly regarded as a success story, having won its spurs in combat in Afghanistan (where the Italian air force reported that its performance exceeded expectations by 15 percent) and supporting counterinsurgency operations in Mali. Orders for 530 of the helicopters have been placed by 14 nations, and the type is now fully operational with 11 customers. The newest customer, Qatar, finalized its $3.7 billion order for 28 aircraft in August 2018.
NH Industries is an international consortium, co-owned by Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) and Fokker Aerostructures. The consortium was formed to develop and produce a medium-size, twin-engine, multi-role military design that would meet NATO requirements for a new battlefield helicopter and also be able to operate in the naval anti-ship/anti-submarine roles. The 1985 requirement was drawn up by France, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and the UK, with the latter dropping out of the project in 1987.
The NH90 was designed to meet multiple international and national airworthiness and design standards and featured an advanced composite airframe and four-blade main rotor. Airbus Helicopters claimed that the faceted composite fuselage gave the NH90 the lowest radar signature in its class, as well as high levels of crashworthiness, ballistic tolerance, and weight savings, giving the aircraft a lower weight than equivalent helicopters and a claimed 30 percent longer endurance than a metal counterpart.
Notably, the NH90 was the first production helicopter to rely entirely on fly-by-wire (FBW) flight controls, featuring a four-channel FBW control system with an integrated four-axis autopilot.
It was built in two main variants—the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) for tactical battlefield use and the navalized NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH). The latter featured a deck-locking Harpoon system, automatic main rotor blade and tail-folding mechanisms, and other deck-handling systems to allow it to operate on board naval ships in all weather conditions.
Like the larger, three-engine AW101, the NH90 has been offered with either Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 or General Electric CT7 8F5 powerplants. Individual customers have customized these main variants to an extraordinary extent, with Sweden taking delivery of a version with an extended-height cabin, for example. Other customers have specified their own sensors and cabin arrangements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NH90 goes by several different names—Caïman in France, Caimán in Spain, Taipan in Australia, and Sea Lion in the German Navy.
France is taking delivery of two different NFH configurations—a combat version and a less-expensive, more austerely equipped NFH version for support.
NHI has also offered a hybrid Maritime Tactical Transport (MTT) variant combining the basic TTH configuration with the folding rotors and tail boom of the NFH version, together with its strengthened landing gear. This variant also features a weather radar, a FLIR, maritime navigation and communications equipment, and a quickly reconfigurable cabin. The MTT can be used for vertical replenishment, troop transport, casualty evacuation, counter-piracy missions, and patrol of exclusive economic zones. The type has been ordered by both Italy and Spain.
In early 2016, it was reported that Australia and France were studying a dedicated special forces variant of the NH90, a concept that also attracted interest from Germany, Italy, and New Zealand.
In 2014, NH Industries proposed creating a new simplified baseline airframe that could then be configured to an individual customer's requirements using plug-and-play mission equipment and sensors. Qatar is likely to be the first beneficiary of this new configuration.
Despite the program’s size, complex manufacturing and workshare arrangements mean that NH Industries has been unable to leverage all of the economies of scale that could have been possible. Manufacturing is undertaken at four sites, and there have been no fewer than five final-assembly lines.
Leonardo's Cascina Costa, Italy facility, is responsible for producing 32 percent of the helicopter, including the NFH mission system, rear fuselage, main gearbox, automatic flight control and engine management systems, and the hydraulic system. Airbus Helicopters France in Marignane produces 31.25 percent of the NH90, including the core avionics, electrical and flight control systems, engines, and main rotors.
Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters Deutschland in Donauwörth, Germany, is responsible for another 31.25 percent, including the forward and center fuselage, as well as the communications, fuel, and avionics control systems. In the Netherlands, Fokker accounts for the final 5.5 percent, including the doors, sponsons, landing gear, tail structure, and the intermediate gearbox.
Final assembly lines at Cascina Costa, Donauwörth, and Marignane were joined by separate local production facilities in Patria, Finland, for Nordic customers, Brisbane for Australian aircraft, and Albacete, Spain.