Pilot Report: Leonardo TH-119

 - September 27, 2019, 12:29 AM

Thirty-two years ago I started my helicopter training at Redhill Aerodrome, Surrey, England, sponsored by the global oil industry giant Bristow Helicopters. I completed my commercial pilot's license course on the even-then venerable 1960s-vintage Westland-Bell 47 G4A. The “avionics suite” included an RMI with an ADF, a VOR OBS indicator, and a VHF radio. After 120 hours on the -47, the next step to IFR pilot came on the 9.6-tonne, 19-passenger AS332L Super Puma, a transition I remember well.

Unsurprisingly, in the past 30 years, things in the rotary training world have moved on considerably, and in front of me now, standing in the late summer sunshine on the north ramp outside Leonardo’s Northeast Philadelphia Airport facility, is the Leonardo TH-119, a 21st century solution to training helicopter pilots from ab-initio to instrument pilot and beyond. Leonardo hopes to be successful in pitching this helicopter in the U.S. Navy’s TH-73 competition (previously known as TH-XX) to replace the Bell 206-derived TH-57B/C Sea Rangers based at NAS Whiting Field in Florida. If so, the TH-119 will be training future USN helicopter pilots for perhaps the next 30 years.

Andrew Gappy is Leonardo's director of Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and federal programs as well as Team TH-119 campaign manager. He's also a graduate of the USN facility at Whiting Field. In a thorough preflight and program briefing, he described how, since the cancellation of the proposed EFIS upgrade to the TH-57D Sea Ranger in 2012, Leonardo had been developing the TH-119 concept to meet the future USN requirement with a single aircraft offering. As Gappy and many of his team had cut their teeth on the TH-57, the enthusiasm and excitement to be a part of the program that could replace this aircraft was plain to see. Enzo Galli, director of engineering, was on hand to answer any technical queries during the brief and add further detail about the program. Peter Wagner, a Leonardo ground training instructor, led me through a systems brief and a comprehensive overview of the Genesys EFIS installed on the TH-119.

The Walkaround

The TH-119's dimensions from rotor tip to tail rotor, height of the vertical tail, and fuselage length are almost exactly the same as those of the Bell Long Ranger. The helicopter looks familiar as, apart from the smart orange and white USN training color scheme, there is little externally to differentiate it from the utility AW119Ke and Kx Koala from which it is derived.

Internally, however, is where the difference lies. With the Genesys AeroSystems IDU-680 EFIS displays and helicopter systems architecture inherited from the twin-engine AW109, Leonardo has been able to certify the single-engine machine for IFR, the first single to be so certified by the FAA in around 30 years. Dual air-data systems, including two ADAHRS and two pitot-static systems, ensure that in the event of a PFD failure, replacement attitude data will be automatically displayed without any crew action required. The dual hydraulic systems are almost identical, except that the number-two system does not boost the tail rotor servo. The redundancy ensures that any single failure does not require immediate action or disconnecting the stability augmentation systems, which would cause a dangerous distraction during IFR flight.

The one system on the TH-119 that required further modifications to meet IFR criteria was the electrical system. With the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6B-37A turboshaft, electrical power came from a single starter-generator. But a previous customer for the AW119 Koala, who was carrying out geological survey work, requested a second generator. So an STC was already available to provide the needed electrical redundancy.

Patrick McKernan, an experienced AW119 instructor and chief of flight operations at Leonardo, demonstrated the TH-119 to me and delivered a military-standard “out brief,” discussing the profile and route to be flown, the weather to be expected, each of our roles and responsibilities both in normal and emergency scenarios (if we lose the engine, whoever gets the collective down first, wins), and threats and errors to be encountered and mitigated.

McKernan took me through the preflight, which is relatively conventional with ready access available to all areas of the helicopter. Handholds and a step big enough for both feet make for a steady platform to inspect the main rotor hub, gearbox, and elastomeric bearings of the four main blades. They are of conventional, non-composite construction as is the majority of the airframe. That could be important in reducing airframe downtime as a training machine is going to suffer more than its fair share of tail stinger strikes during ab-initio maneuvers. The hydraulic system levels can be checked through two sight gauges beneath a panel on the starboard side of the aircraft easily visible from the ground. So is the auxiliary generator, which is belt driven and has a dedicated gauze-covered air intake and exhaust for cooling. As the auxiliary generator is permanently driven, one future modification that is in the pipeline is to upgrade this to a brushless generator to reduce wear during the long periods the aux generator is not required. The external power receptacle is on the right side of the forward fuselage, easily visible to the pilot-in-command, a fact that has positive safety implications for both the helicopter and the ground crew.

Leonardo TH-119
Preflight inspection is simple thanks to handholds and steps big enough for both feet.

Walking around to the port side of the machine, I notice the tail rotor gearbox has a sight gauge easily visible at head height. The prominent tailboom stinger, beneath the lower vertical tail, can also be readily inspected for signs of previous contact. To make this easier to note, tape has been applied to the bottom of the stinger. As this is an ab-initio trainer, a major part of the syllabus will involve engine-off landings to sliding touchdowns, often on hard runways. To cope with this, the skids are fitted with two-piece removable and replaceable skid shoes, the attachments of which can be inspected on the sides of the skids.

This side of the helicopter has a baggage bay door that provides enough space for any ground-handling equipment. Both main doors slide along external rails and lock and unlock easily. These are an improvement over the plug-door design found on other helicopters, as I find they can tend to become difficult to open and close over time.

The Flight Deck

Before we climbed onto the flight deck, we took a quick look into the spacious cabin to see the observer's or third pilot's seat situated behind and between the two pilots' seats. This seat has its own intercom controls and can be moved forward to provide a good view of the controls and displays. There is considerable value for a student to sit behind the pilots and observe a lesson before swapping seats and handling the exercise for themselves, enhancing training value and perhaps even reducing required training times. There is currently a three-place bench seat behind the observer's seat situated against the rear bulkhead, but McKernan suggests this will be replaced by a slightly different configuration of two seats outboard on each cabin side on production variants of the TH-119.

With the sliding doors closed, we climbed onto the forward step fixed to the skids and entered the flight deck. The cockpit doors are of conventional “car style” with a sliding DV section. Unlike production aircraft, this machine, N824BM, has no air-conditioning. Air-con on a military training machine might seem like a luxury, but a student and instructor would learn and teach much more effectively and efficiently in a comfortable environment. The cockpit seats do enhance that environment with their high backs and headrests. The harness is a simple inertia-reel four-point arrangement, and while I took a few minutes setting up my GoPro and voice recorders, McKernan joined me in the right "command" seat.

cockpit Leonardo TH-119
The four screens and identical visual cues mean there is little disadvantage to either seat.

I flew left-seat for the evaluation, as it had been several years since my last single-engine turbine flight. Also, my previous helicopter type, an AS355, had traditional "steam" gauges. The four-screen configuration and the USN specification that the visual references from the aircraft be the same from the left or right seat mean that there is little disadvantage to flying from either seat. The intended USN students who may fly the TH-119 will have already completed the all-digital, glass-cockpit equipped Beechcraft T-6 Texan II fixed-wing phase of their training before starting their rotary-wing course. So my own experience in glass cockpits from my fixed-wing time flying the Boeing 787 and my lack of recent experience in helicopters will in some way mirror this and provide a good baseline to assess the TH-119's future role.

McKernan had me read the checklist, an excellent way of allowing me to keep up with an unfamiliar type and at the same time take on board all the relevant checks and procedures. The PT6 can be controlled either electronically via the electronic engine control (EEC), mechanically via an Nr droop compensator (MEC), or manually using the twist grip throttle. The PFDs and MFDs begin their initialization processes once the battery switch is turned on, and any button press continues this process.

The rest of the checks are standard test items familiar to any digital cockpit turbine helicopter, addressing aural warnings; FCU and fire systems; fuel-valve and fuel-transfer pumps; and cycling the EEC/MEC engine control on the right side collective to test the EEC and the mechanical control systems.

The fuel system consists of two main tanks under the cabin floor and an upper tank behind the rear bench seats in the cabin. The upper tank gravity feeds into the right lower tank and the transfer pump moves fuel from the right to the left engine feed tank.

Getting in the Air

The engine start procedure is standard for a PT6. Having checked the external power was providing the required 28 volts, McKernan pressed and released the start button, checked the MFD to see the ENG START and IGNITER messages are displayed.  Once the N1 reached 12 percent and the ITT was checked at below 100 degrees on the MFD strip gauge, he moved the throttle to idle. The start took 20 seconds to reach an N1 of 43 percent and the starter automatically dropped out. If the ITT approached the start limit of 1,090 degrees, you are allowed 10 seconds above 870 and two seconds above 980 before the throttle would close and the start is aborted. However, in this case, the ITT did not trouble any of the limits, peaking at around 650 degrees.

As the blades started rotating, counterclockwise from above, we checked the hydraulic pressure to ensure it was rising. Five seconds after N1 passed 51 percent, the ITT gauge on the MFD reconfigured automatically to display cruise limits. The N1 stabilized around the recommended 61 percent and we checked the gearbox oil pressure before disconnecting the external power, which illuminates a momentary BATTERY caption that disappeared as soon as the generator was selected "on." Subsequent check items include: inverters on, amps within limits, and the avionics master switch "on." The engine can now be brought up to flight idle using the twist-grip throttle. While there is no limitation, McKernan keeps the torque below 30 percent as the Nr accelerates to 102 percent. All items with redundancy are now checked such as hydraulic servos, fuel pumps, SAS, ADAHRS, and engine control. Then we can turn our attention to the Genesys EFIS.

Leonardo TH-119
AIN’s test flight of the TH-119 began at Leonardo’s Northeast Philadelphia Airport facility. The U.S. Navy expects to make its trainer selection by year-end.

My first impression of the six- by eight-inch screens was that they are adequately bright enough even on this clear sky, sunny day and the resolution is high enough that the displays are sharp and thus easy to read. The screens are divided into top and bottom, and for the start sequence, McKernan has the PFD show the primary flight instruments (PFI) on the top half and the map beneath. Meanwhile, his MFD showed the full ENGINE page, which displays Caution/Advisory/Status (CAS) messages in a block on the lower left. Time-critical warnings and cautions also appear on the PFD, while on the lower page, ITT/TRQ, and N2/NR are constantly displayed.

McKernan had already stored a simple route from KPNE and return routing via the Coyle VOR, to Ocean County, the nearest airport with an ILS, and then back to KPNE where the intention was to shoot an RNAV approach. This can be activated and viewed waypoint by waypoint via the FPL menu on the PFD, but routes can only be entered and modified via the MFD.

Before we contacted ground at Northeast Philadelphia, McKernan gave me my first introduction to inputting information on the Genesys. Using the radio page of the EFIS, I tuned the ATIS. The inputs and selections are controlled by eight hard keys down either side of the IDU bezels that coincide with soft selection options on the screen depending on the modes selected and four rotary “encoder” selectors along the bottom of the IDUs. The soft selection options are either ghosted triangles if no further menu levels are available or solid grey if selecting this option will produce further menu options. R1 key, in the top right of the bezel, will either display MENU or EXIT. If this button displays EXIT, it will always return the screen menu options to the top level. I quickly discovered that if an expected option could not be found, it was because I had not selected EXIT to return the menu to the top level after looking at a different screen. On the top-level menu, the L7 key will select RADIO. This opens an audio/radio menu box on the lower section of the PFD. 

The standby VHF frequencies on COM1/2 are boxed, white for MHz and magenta for kHz. These correspond with the same color-coding under two encoder rotary switches on the bottom of the IDU, and the frequency can be altered. The R7 bezel key is labeled SWAP and changes the standby to the active. The EXIT button R1, should then be pressed to go back to the top-level PFD menu. I have to admit, I found this process very fiddly, especially for a helicopter, but like any new system, it would soon become second nature. 

The weather showed a 10-knot breeze from the west, clear skies, and a temperature of 70 deg F. With McKernan and me onboard and 400 kg (882 pounds) of fuel, N824BM weighed in at 2,422 kg, 428 kg below the maximum takeoff weight. McKernan had done performance figures before walking out, and the HOGE (hover out of ground effect) at max-continuous power was 4,000 feet; 7,500 feet at takeoff power.

With a VFR clearance to the southeast, McKernan lifted us into the hover using 60 percent torque, and we transitioned along Taxiway Juliet with a right turn. The takeoff profile of the TH-119 requires a five-foot transition to 30 knots, a 15 percent torque increase, and an accelerating climb to 60 knots to remain clear of the "avoid" curve on the height-velocity diagram. At 60 knots, McKernan handed me the controls, and we followed the Roncocas Creek out to the west. Immediately, the collective felt rather heavy and I was conscious of avoiding too-large power changes. The cyclic was slightly lighter, but with the force trim cancel button pushed on the left side of the handgrip, roll and pitch control were pleasant. With the SAS engaged and attitude-hold selected, the relatively heavy control forces prevented any tendency to overcontrol. Yaw control is light and will feel similar to any pilot familiar with the Jet Ranger or Sea Ranger.

I leveled off at 1,500 feet, setting the flight path marker on the PFI onto the horizon, and we accelerated to 120 knots. To sample high-speed cruise, I slowly added power toward maximum continuous torque of 100 percent, but we reached the ITT limit of 750 degrees at 93 percent torque, giving us an IAS of 150 knots, just below the Vne of 152. Although McKernan said he would sit at this speed all day on a long flight, as the ride was quite turbulent, I eased off on the torque to 65 percent and 120 knots where we were burning around 180 kg/hr of fuel. I tried some turns up to 60 degrees of bank and with FTR pressed and the helicopter handled well, but I needed to keep reminding myself to use my feet, needing more right yaw pedal than left.

Missed Approach

We selected VOR mode on the HSI on my lower map and I tracked towards the Coyle VOR while talking to McGuire AFB for traffic service. McKernan modified the route by selecting an ILS approach to Runway 6 at Ocean County, and we remained south of Lakehurst Airport on a left base for the localizer, allowing a good view of the Zeppelin hangars designed and built for the ill-fated Hindenburg, which crashed here in 1937. The northwesterly wind, now up to 26 knots as depicted on the PFD, initially blew me through the inbound course, so I made a left turn into the wind and corrected.

The flight path marker on the PFD is a useful tool, but with no heading markers on the horizon line of the PFD, it is not as surgical as it could be. The heading scale is located at the top of the PFD, which means that the scan from that, down to the localizer on the bottom, is a large one. However, a green track marker both on this scale and the HSI coupled with a green dashed line for track is very useful and once on course, it's easy to maintain the localizer. The glideslope display is on the right-hand side of the PFD, and I reduced power to follow it and maintained 90 knots.

The missed approach for the procedure is a climbing left turn back to the Coyle VOR, so we agreed we would arm the go-around mode (GA) and engage it at a minimum of 500 feet. On reaching this altitude, I pushed the GA button on the right of the cyclic and the mode display, situated on the top of the PFD, changed from armed (white) to engaged (green); we then coupled the autopilot. The helicopter pitched up and maintained the current selected heading, and I added power to climb away. On the control panel of the Sperry/Honeywell/Galileo SHZ-109A analog autopilot ahead of the right-side collective, there is no option to select a NAV mode that will track a GPS course. So the IDU menu has to be accessed to engage NHDG, which then captured the track back to the VOR. The displayed course turned from cyan to magenta, indicating this had occurred; as well as the green NHDG mode on the top of the PFD. The next active waypoint information is displayed on the bottom right of the PFD in magenta. I had been warned that the analog autopilot could be imprecise while maneuvering, and the heading oscillated slightly, needing a little manual input in yaw before it settled down on the course.

Things had all happened pretty quickly for me, so we left the autopilot coupled and set course, using the direct function on the PFD to fly to KABKE which is the IAF for the RNAV to KPNE. I took a few deep breaths. McKernan had selected the RNAV (GPS) approach for Northeast Philly and we leveled at 2,000 feet, the platform altitude. The PFD annunciated an LPV approach in green and the inbound course and deviation scale was displayed at the bottom. With the autopilot coupled, we flew the approach in IAS and NHDG modes, which enabled me to control the rate of descent by lowering and raising the collective and allowing the speed and track to be maintained by the autopilot.

As the active flight plan had altitudes pre-programmed, a green top-of-descent marker was shown on the MAP display. At this point, I lowered the collective

to set up a 400-fpm descent rate and followed the glideslope indications on the right with Highway in the sky (HITS) boxes showing on the PFD to fly through. As before with three axes coupled, a little pedal assistance was required at these slower speeds to keep the slip/skid indicator centered, but overall, the workload was relatively low and I could monitor the approach well.

The automated minimums call came at 380 feet, and I disconnected the higher modes of the helipilot system. At 75 knots and around 75 feet, I flared, aiming for the touchdown zone markings, which appeared in the synthetic vision on the PFD as we crossed them. During the landing, the aft section of the skids contacted first and then we settled onto the ground. The TH-119 was doing a good job of getting me back into being a helo pilot. Visual circuits were next, onto Runway 33 at KPNE, and I was getting into the swing of things. On base, while turning and lowering the collective, I had to concentrate on the strange sensation of adding a significant amount of right pedal while turning left as I reduced torque, which is perhaps an indication that this a powerful single-engine machine with up to 1,000 shp at my control.

After two patterns, McKernan offered to demonstrate an engine-off landing onto the hard runway, something I’d never seen before. After a couple of practice engine-offs in the hover and a gentle run-on landing to get his eye in, we climbed to 1,000 feet for the demo. Crossing the threshold of the runway, McKernan closed the throttle and dumped the collective. The NR dropped to 97 percent with a brief “rotor low” aural warning and then recovered. The minimum rate of descent speed was nailed on 1,800 fpm. As we passed 150 feet, McKernan pitched up to reduce the descent rate and leveled the skids, paused, and cushioned with the collective. We ran on at 15 knots, producing a ground slide of approximately 80 feet and a minimum NR of 67 percent.

I took control again to return to the ramp. On the way back, we tried some spot turns, sideways and backward, and the helicopter was nicely controllable with good visibility downwards through the chin windows. Even with the SAS disengaged, I was able to hover over a spot and set down. One nice EFIS feature to look at was the hover vector, which replaces the flight path marker on the PFD below a ground speed of 30 knots. It show two concentric circles of 10- and 20-knot radius. To prove this, I lifted to a 50-foot hover and started moving backward. A vector extended from the center of the PFD downward, its length proportional to ground speed. As it touched the first circle, our groundspeed, read off the PFD, was 10 knots. This function would be especially useful during a very high hover where visual references are reduced, especially at night, say, during winch operations.

We had been airborne for 1.5 hours, so it was time to head back to the ramp. Indicative of the qualities of this machine and McKernan’s stewardship was that I was able and confident to position between the main Leonardo hangar and a pre-production MH-139 on a convenient spot. If the U.S. Navy decides to go with the TH-119, and the contract decision is expected towards the end of this year, I have no doubt this machine and its Genesys EFIS system is going to provide a great teaching platform for instructors currently flying the 50-year-old TH-57. And the pilots it produces will be ready for the transition to the most advanced combat aircraft the 21st century has to offer.