New Zealand’s New NH90 & A109E Helicopter Fleets
In 2005, NH Industries’ NH90 helicopter was selected to replace the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s aging UH-1 Iroquois, which would remain in service until 2009. A firm deal was finalized in July 2006, and New Zealand will buy 9 TTH variant helicopters; Australia’s initial 12-aircraft NH90 buy may offer some points of comparison.
Delays would eventually push New Zealand’s NH90 project back, but making the decision also allowed New Zealand’s Labour Party government to move ahead with a 2nd helicopter replacement: A109E Training and Light Utility helicopters, to replace New Zealand’s ancient M.A.S.H. era Bell 47Gs. That buy happened in 2008, but its helicopters have entered service years before the NH90s. Why is that, and what drove New Zealand to make the choices it did?
New Helicopters for New Zealand
New Zealand’s air force is a shadow of its former self, but the country still needs some equipment. The RNZAF considered a number of options, including a single-type fleet, but came to the conclusion that it needed 2 different helicopters.
The core problem was that any machine that could even begin to perform the operational duties New Zealand wanted, would be way too complex and dangerous to operate as a training machine. On the other hand, the cost of the helicopters that could meet its expected needs were high enough that New Zealand would need its training helicopters to supplement that small fleet on missions, including the ability to operate from ships. This pushed them to the upper end of the spectrum for light helicopters.
New Zealand’s 2 frigates already operate SH-2G Super Seasprites, but its new 9,000t multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury needed compatible machines. The Canterbury was built under Project Protector as part of the RNZN’s future force plans, and replaces the F-421 HMNZS Canterbury frigate which was retired in 2005. She has space for 2 helicopters on board, and could transport up to 4 via tie-downs on her flight deck.
The eventual mix New Zealand chose was 8 operational NH90 TTH medium helicopters, 5 operational A109E Power training and light helicopters, plus 1 of each as an on-hand spare parts supply.
Medium Utility Helicopter: NH90 TTH
The NH90 helicopter purchase was the last piece of New Zealand’s NZ$ 3.3 billion Long Term Development Plan, which aims to make sure that its military can meet minimum required capability levels. A medium helicopter that would work equally well on land and in hostile salt-water environments was too useful, and the current fleet too old and dangerous, to put off the buy much longer. Weaponry was not a major focus, but versatility, carrying capacity, and all weather performance were. Compatibility with Australian equipment was a lesser factor, but the NH90 TTH model selected is also the mainstay of the future Australian Army.
New Zealand’s NH90s will be deployed from land bases, and eventually loaded on board HMNZS Canterbury along with Army troops and their Pinzgauer trucks and LAV armored personnel carriers.
The NH90 comes from a NATO requirement that created NATO’s own helicopter development and procurement agency in 1992 and, at almost the same time, the consortium to build the hardware. NH Industries brings together Finmaccanica’s Agusta-Westland, EADS Eurocopter’s French and German arms, and Holland’s Stork-Fokker.
The 10-tonne NH90, which first flew in 1996, uses composite materials instead of riveted metal alloy plates, which saves weight and makes corrosion much less of a problem. At the same time, electronic fly-by-wire systems save the weight of the usual strong and heavy power-boosted hydraulic control systems. This allows the helicopter to remain within the 10-tonne weight class, while being only slightly smaller than the 15-tonne EH-101. Unlike the UH-60 Blackhawk, the NH90 has a rear drop-down loading ramp that can take a small vehicle inside, or quickly load or drop off supplies. It can also carry a normal load of 12-20 troops, depending on the amount of equipment they’re hauling, to a normal maximum range of 900 km/ 560 miles using all available internal tanks. Normal load is 2.5 tonnes inside.
NATO’s arctic service requirements may have helped the NH90 win in New Zealand, whose naval patrol responsibilities include large sections of ocean near the Antarctic. The NH90′s envelope of operating conditions is much wider than the UH-1′s. Built for what NH Industries calls “extreme adverse weather” operations, it can start up and fly, land, and shut down in winds gusting up to around 110 kmh/ 68 mph without losing rotor control, and fly day and night in heavy icing conditions down to -30 degrees Celsius. This has actually proven to be a problem for the helicopter, but as of 2012, NH Industries is testing a solution.
Other modern innovations include fully integrated systems whose modularity makes them easier to update, advanced mission flight aids, and design features that make it easier to maintain and support.
New Zealand became the 12th country to confirm that it would buy the NH90 (Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Portugal, Sweden). At the time, it brought NH Industries’ order book to around 400 machines.
New Zealand ended up picking the NH90 because all other candidates failed to meet the requirements it had crafted. Issues for AgustaWestland’s AW139, HAL’s Dhruv, and Kamov’s Ka-29 didn’t meet all payload, stowed aircraft, and/or stretcher limits.
The nearest comparable serving helicopter to the NH90 is probably the American H-60 Blackhawk/ Seahawk, a well-proven 10-tonne helicopter that has been flying since 1979. Within its 10 tonnes of maximum takeoff weight, the UH-60 Blackhawk normally carries 11 equipped troops, with a normal maximum range of around 550 km/ 340 miles, or more with external wing-mounted tanks. Like the NH90, the UH-60 Blackhawk can also carry cargo using a hook and sling system underneath, without damaging the airframe – as often happens if a UH-1 is uses its hook and sling too often. On the other hand, the Blackhawk has less internal space than the NH90, and its metal construction makes corrosion more of an issue. It also lacks a rear ramp, relying on sliding side doors instead.
Even so, when the new UH-60M was submitted, it was deemed to meet all of New Zealand’s requirements – except the one that required an in-production machine. That left only the NH90.
The new UH-60 derived H-92 Superhawk, a heavier aircraft that incorporates many of the NH90′s innovations and has a slightly higher cargo capacity, is an even better comparison. When New Zealand made its decision, however, the S-92 was only serving as a civilian helicopter, and its military version was on the drawing board as Canada’s “CH-148 Cyclone” anti-submarine patrol helicopter, rather than a general utility version.
RNZAF planners had considered it in early stages, and they liked its lift capacity and expected acquisition cost relative to the NH90. On the other hand, the S-92′s cabin “design caused tactical concerns”, and it was seen as too developmental, with too much risk of cost and schedule issues. They crafted their eventual RFP to avoid such submissions, and Canada’s experience with its S-92 derivative has certainly validated that judgement.
Unfortunately, so has New Zealand’s experience with the NH90.
Waiting for NH
In contrast, the first production NH90 was delivered to Italy in 2004, which made it a strong candidate for New Zealand’s 2005 decision as an “off the shelf” option. As things turned out, however, the NH90 proved itself to be a developmental machine that wasn’t quite ready. Deliveries have been very slow, and qualification with key aviation authorities in member countries has been even slower. These delays have affected New Zealand’s plans for full fielding, which have been pushed back from 2009 to 2013/14.
While New Zealand waited for the NH90s, the UH-1 Hueys were to be kept in service until at least 2009. Late NH90 deliveries ended up extending that by several more years into the 2010s, which has created its own issues. One stems from the fact that the Bell 204/205, as civilian versions of the UH-1 Iroquois are known, are so popular with industrial operators. Many ex-military machines are being recommissioned for departmental and commercial utility roles around the world, and apparently that has created some availability issues for some key components. Another involves the force’s small size, which is creating manning shortfalls as units prepare to operate the other helicopter types. Readiness for the existing UH-1 fleet has suffered accordingly.
Next Steps in NZ: The A109 T-LUH
Replacement of the old Bell 47Gs with a new training/light utility work helicopter was the other key element of New Zealand’s helicopter modernization project. Most readers will recognize the Bell 47 Sioux as the iconic helicopter from M.A.S.H., a TV show about the Korean War. Helicopters this old won’t do the job of training pilots to fly a complex medium helicopter with digital displays, and are questionable lead-ins to New Zealand’s highly modernized SH-2G Super Seasprite anti-submarine helicopters.
That interconnection is why identifying the country’s preferred medium utility helicopter was necessary, before the training and light utility (T/LUH) helicopter buy could proceed. As noted above, the new machines also had to be capable of performing basic light utility missions like transport, rescue, and medical evacuation if needed.
NH90 participants EADS Eurocopter (EC135-P2T2) and Agusta (A109) both had light utility helicopters that could be seen as appropriate trainers for NH90 pilots. They were used as capability evaluation baselines by the RNZAF, and both were submitted. Other submissions included Bell (407), Eurocopter (AS350-B3 Ecureuil), and MD Helicopters (902 NOTAR). In the end, AgustaWestland’s popular A109 Power light helicopter was picked to replace the 1950s-era Bell Sioux.
The A109Es were originally scheduled for delivery from Italy in late 2010, but deliveries don’t appear to have taken place until the end of Q1 2011. They were in service by fall 2011, years ahead of the NH90s.
Contracts & Key Events
2011 – 2012
“At the time the Major Projects Report was written, around a year ago, a number of risks were identified… In the past twelve months most of those issues have been addressed. Because our helicopters are still in production we are able to incorporate improvements prior to delivery. We began flying the helicopter here in New Zealand in February and the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has achieved all intended activities with the NH90… [in] 51.5 flying hours on the two NH90s in New Zealand… As many of the countries purchasing the NH90 are Scandinavian countries, you can imagine issues around performance in snow have been quickly resolved. A solution has been identified, tested and is just going through the final verification before being implemented to NH90s globally.”
The RNZAF is also looking into deployment options for the NH90s, since they won’t fit into the force’s C-130 Hercules planes. Indeed, the only plane that can carry them is the Russian AN-124. Those are available for lease, but flights to and from New Zealand would not be cheap. Fairfax NZ’s Stuff | RNZAF response.
March 9/12: NH90s Welcomed. Official welcoming ceremony for the NH90 in New Zealand, at Wellington Airport. The 2 available helicopters will require 12-18 months of operational test and evaluation at Ohakea. RNZAF.
2011: UH-1s. The RNZDF’s annual report [PDF] says of its UH-1 fleet that only 6 of 14 are ready for military tasks. It adds that:
“As more resources have gone to the [A109 and NH90 transitions], the effect on No. 3 Squadron has become more pronounced, manifesting as reduced aircraft availability… In particular, maintenance personnel have been lost… [which] led to the decision to contract all phase servicing to Safe Air Ltd (SAL) in Woodbourne. SAL has not been able to return the aircraft as quickly as desired, resulting in a backlog that has yet to be cleared… the flying rate has tended to ebb and flow during the year, with hours reserved prior to exercises and operations, then flown intensively to ensure all objectives were achieved… The Bell 47G Sioux was retired from basic helicopter pilot training in December 2010. Until the A109 can pick up this role, helicopter pilot training will be conducted entirely on the UH-1H Iroquois.”
Nov 15/11: NZ-OAG Report. New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee receives testimony regarding the Office of the Auditor General’s 2011 Major Project Report. The A109 gets a clean bill of health. Of the budgeted NZ$ 771.7 million for the NH90, the RNZAF has spent NZ$ 551.3 million so far, and believes the final total will be just NZ$ 690.9 million. The need to resolve outstanding discrepancies before the provisional acceptance of the first 2 aircraft in France has delayed the program, but 90% of the function and performance specifications are now on track to be delivered.
On the other hand, the report notes that New Zealand is likely have fewer spares on hand than NH Industries recommends, could have problems operating the NH90 in the snowy conditions of New Zealand winters or southern sea patrols, and faces a 2 year delay for Defence to achieve all of its contracted capabilities. Equipment that may not be ready in time for acceptance includes the External and Internal Auxiliary Fuel Tanks, the Chaff and flare dispenser, the Cargo rolling device, Bottom life raft, Fast roping and rappelling device, Ballistic protection, and the Pintle mount for a machine gun. Which would make the NH90s training helicopters with limited range and usage, and very limited search-and-rescue capabilities.
The OAG is also concerned that “NHIndustries may freeze its development of the NH90′s software before it reaches a standard that can be accepted by Defence.” The RNZAF’s response is that it won’t accept the NH90s until they’re delivered to spec, but the UH-1 fleet’s age may yet force their hand. Overall, she says that:
“I said in my commentary in the 2010 Major Project that the projects with the least delays were those bought “off the shelf”. In my view, in addition to more focus on off-the shelf items, more consideration must be given to the risks involved in buying aircraft that are “first of type”. Aircraft with proven capabilities may be better value for money and may be more quickly introduced into service.”
Oct 31/11: A109 naval trial. The RNZAF announces that its new A109Es have begun aviation trials with HMNZS Canterbury, while that ship was moored dockside at Devonport Naval Base. That eliminates wave issues from the equation, and let them test landing and stowage in the hangar, followed by removal and flight.
May 13/11: A109 into Service. The Royal New Zealand Air Force holds a ceremony at Ohakea to introduce the A109 helicopter into service, and formally open the new helicopter hangar there.
Initial Operating Capability is slated for September 2011, with Full Operational Capability expected by May 2013. That will eventually include shipborne operations from HMNZS Canterbury, which was added to New Zealand’s requirements later on, because it was seen as so useful. RNZAF ceremony invite | Stuff.co.nz
March 24/11: A109. Crates containing 2 Italian-built AgustaWestland A109 helicopters have been delivered to the RNZAF base at Ohakea. Work has started on assembling the first one, while the 2nd machine will be kept for spares. The remaining 4 A109s are expected to be delivered by September 2011.
New Zealand ordered its 8 NH90 medium helicopters before the A109s, but that program is running late, and will field operational helicopters after the A109s have begun service. The A109 delivery itself was originally scheduled for late 2010; even so, media reports describe the helos as the first new operational aircraft to go into service since the RNZAF started flying (now-retired) A-4 Skyhawk fighter bombers in 1970. New Zealand’s SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters, which went into service in 2001, were also new-build machines – but they belong to the country’s navy, not its air force. Sunday Star Times.
2009 – 2010
June 14/10: NH90. News 3 quotes New Zealand Defence Minister Wayne Mapp of the National Party, who says that despite German reports citing issues with the NH90, he won’t be canceling New Zealand’s order.
May 20/10: Budget 2010 provides an extra NZ$ 35 million a year to fund increased costs for the New Zealand Defence Force. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp:
“New equipment such as the Protector fleet for the Navy and new helicopters for the Air Force means we have to fund sharply increased depreciation and operating costs. This extra money will help offset the depreciation burden. The current Value for Money exercise aims to reallocate funding within Defence to make the best use of this new equipment and allow it to be enhanced.”
April 25/10: UH-1 crash. One of New Zealand’s UH-1 Iroquois helicopters crashes on the way to ANZAC Day events near Wellington, killing 3 RNZAF personnel. Minister’s statement.
March 31/10: NH90. On the occasion of a visit to Eurocopter Deutschland GmbH, defpro.com asks for Eurocopter’s response to BILD’s report, and receives a response from Eurocopter Vice President & NAHEMA Programme Coordination Manager Dr Clive Schley.
As a quick rundown, the answer to most of these is “contractual specifications.” Dr. Schley says the ground clearance is to specifications, as is the winch’s 270 kg load. Other customers have done fast-roping from the NH90, but Germany did not buy that ancillary equipment. The approved internal 110 kg seat load is not the maximum load, and first results of tests for stretcher loading procedures when a machine gun is installed in the door are “promising.” Trials of the NH90 MedEvac demonstrator are scheduled for Q2 2010.
March 1/10: NH90. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australia’s military is aware of the German report, but is making no commitments:
“A defence spokesman said Australia was seeking an English translation of the German Army trial report on its NH-90 helicopters. He said all matters of operational effectiveness and airworthiness were taken seriously and the German report would be reviewed in detail.”
Australia operates the same NH90 model helicopter as New Zealand, but designates it as MRH90.
Feb 23/10: NH90 deficiencies? The German Army is concerned over several deficiencies with the NH90 TTH helicopter as fielded, and says so in an official report. Germany’s Bild daily says the army has tried out 13 test helicopters, and concluded they were not fully battle-ready. Key complaints reportedly include:
- Seats with weight capacities of just 110 kg, very low in an era where soldiers routinely carry 20-30 kg of protective gear;
- Helicopter winch that can’t handle the needs of fast-roping commando teams or boarding parties;
- No defensive machine gun and door-gunner, due to limited cabin space;
- An infantry team can be carried only if team members leave their personal weapons and kit on the floor, slowing offloading; worse, there are no floor straps to secure those weapons;
- The lack of floor straps means that heavier weapons like shoulder-fired missiles can’t be transported at all;
- The composite floor is too prone to damage, and the rear ramp can’t support fully equipped soldiers. Note that the Bild report refers to a floor that can’t handle soldiers with dirty boots, which makes little sense. If the rear ramp can’t support the banging weight of fully-equipped troops, however, the floor may also have issues.
- The Bild report refers to difficulties with soldiers exiting the helicopter on ground with obstacles over 16 cm tall, due to low ground clearance, which makes little sense on its face. If there’s a problem with low clearance and damage-prone composites, however, it could create problems landing the helicopters on obstacle-strewn ground. That might in turn force slower methods of exit, like hover-and-rope, but the connection isn’t intuitive.
November 2009: NH90. Australia conducts naval trials of its MRH-90s, which are closely derived from the NH90-TTH Army variant. New Zealand watches with interest. The month long testing regime on board the LST amphibious ship HMAS Manoora gauged the MRH90′s capabilities at sea through takeoffs, landings, munitions transfers and weight load carries.
This month, the Army also conducts “lift trials” for various vehicles and loads with the MRH90′s external sling system. The results of both tests will be of considerable interest in New Zealand. Australian DoD LST release and image gallery | Lift Trials release & gallery.
July 28/09: A109 trainer. In preparation for the arrival of the A109 training and light utility helicopters and simulator late in 2010, the A109 Virtual Interactive Procedural Trainer (VIPT) has been installed at RNZAF Base Ohakea. RNZAF.
May 9/09: NH90 1st flight. First flight of the 1st NZAF NH90 at Eurocopter in Marignane, France. A revised schedule has been agreed to, following some delay in overall NH90 qualification and certification, since the NZ variant relies upon those efforts for its own qualification and certification. Training of aircrew and maintainers is scheduled to begin in France from mid-2010, with the first helicopter available for flight training in December 2010. All 9 helicopters are scheduled for delivery by early 2012.
It didn’t turn out that way. Source.
2006 – 2008
June 25/08: NZ-OAG Report. New Zealand’s auditor General releases “Reporting the progress of defence acquisition projects“. With respect to the NH90:
“The cost approved at the Approval to Commit point ($771.7 million) was $221.7 million more than the upper limit of the estimated range at the Approval to Commence point ($550 million). Between the approval points, the date of introduction into service increased by 42 months… Since the Approval to Commit point, there have been no further changes to costs or time frames. Overall, the changes for the Medium Utility Helicopter project came from the difference between initial estimates and the more accurate costs from the tender process. The lengthy tender process also delayed the project.”
May 8/08: A109 deal. New Zealand signs a contract with AgustaWestland for 5 new operational A109 training & light utility helicopters, one helicopter set as spares, and a simulator. AgustaWestland describes the order as being worth EUR 57 million – or NZ$ 112 million at the time.
Oct 30/07: A109 picked. The A109 is picked to replace the B47G Sioux training helicopter.
The A019E/LUH currently serves with the armed forces of Malaysia, South Africa, and Sweden, the US Coast Guard, and with a number of national police and border agencies around the world. The broader A109 family also serves in Albania, Argentina, Australia (Navy), Belgium (A109BA, associated with a major bribery scandal), Benin, China (licensed CA109), Chile (Carabineros), Ghana, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Sweden, UK, and Venezuela. The A109′s Swedish configuration is the one that had attracted New Zealand’s interest.
Later NZ-OAG documents show similar capital costs, but higher operating costs for the A109 compared to the Eurocopter of MD Helicopters models. The NZDF went back to Cabinet and got approval for its preferred choice, on the grounds that its choice offered the best capability, along with deployability via the RNZAF’s C-130s.
Sept 4/06: T/LUH RFP. The NZ Ministry of Defence is authorized to issue a Request for Tender for a Training & Light Utility Helicopter fleet of up to 6 helicopters. According to the NZ-OAG, Responses to the 2005 Expression of Interest had included:
- AgustaWestland – A109E Power
- Bell Helicopter Textron – Bell 407
- EADS Eurocopter – AS350-B3 Ecureuil or EC135 R2T2.
- MD Helicopters & Boeing – MD Explorer 902, with NOTAR(NO Tail Rotor)
July 31/06: NH90 deal. NZ Defence Minister Phil Goff signs a NZ$ 771 million (about $475 million) contract with NH Industries for 8 NH90-TTH helicopters to replace the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s fleet of aging UH-1 Iroquois (“Hueys”). NH Industries’ release corrects the total to 9 helicopters, in order to ensure 8 operational machines. In the official RNZAF release, Mr Goff said:
“Compared to the Iroquois, the NH90 can carry 19 rather than 8 passengers or 12 fully equipped troops as opposed to 5. At 260 kilometres an hour cruise speed, it is more than a third faster. Its maximum range is 800 kilometres rather than 180. It can lift up to 4,000 kilograms rather than 820…
For deployments and disaster relief in the Pacific, with long range tanks the NH-90s can self-deploy. They are capable of lifting Light Operational Vehicles off the multi-role vessel in situations where there are no port facilities and landing craft cannot be used… operate for extended periods and with large loads in all weathers, day and night, with significant flexibility. For search and rescue, they have much greater reach and are better able to recover people in extreme environmental conditions.”
2005 and Earlier
April 5/05: NH90 picked. New Zealand officially selects the NH90 as its next troop transport helicopter, replacing the current UH-1H Iroquois (aka. Hueys). No contract has been signed yet, and final number are not confirmed. New Zealand becomes the 12th country to have chosen the NH90.
The NZ OAG would later explain that all 5 alternatives to the NH90 failed to meet requirements. Issues for the AB139, Dhruv, Ka-29, and UH-1Y included payload, stowed aircraft limits, and stretcher limits. The S-70M was considered to meet operational requirements, but was still a developmental prototype, hence not in production. That left only the NH90. NZ government (via Wayback Machine) | NHI release | EADS release | The Manawatu Standard’s Flying By The Wire (via Wayback Machine) | eDefense Online (via Wayback Machine).
Oct 13/04: MUH RFP. Cabinet authorizes the NZ Ministry of Defence to conduct a due diligence process, followed by the release of tender documentation to 3 short listed suppliers. Replies to the original 2004 Expression of Interest had included:
- Bell Agusta – AB139, now AgustaWestland AW139, after this US partnership dissolved
- Bell Helicopter Textron – UH-1Y Venom, Huey successor
- India’s HAL – ALH Dhruv
- Russia’s Kamov – Ka-29
- NH Industries – NH90 TTH
- Sikorsky – S-70M/ UH-60M
Source: NZ OAG.
Dec 3/03: The New Zealand Cabinet agrees to a replacement helicopter capability, with a fleet mix of training and light utility helicopters and medium utility helicopters. Source: NZ OAG.
April 2/01: Project initiation. The NZDF’s Sustainable Capability Plan had recommended a study to identify options for upgrading or replacing the UH-1s, and Cabinet gives its approval. Source: NZ OAG.
Note that the New Zealand Ministry of Defence is also known as the Wanatu Kaupapa Waonga, which might be the world’s coolest name for a defense ministry. Their MoD Haka probably takes first place as well.
Program & Helicopters
- NZ MoD – Agusta-Westland A109 LUH (NZ) Training\Light Utility Helicopter
- RNZAF – A109 Light Utility Helicopter
- NZ MoD – TNZA (NH90) Medium Utility Helicopter
- RNZAF – NH90 Frequently Asked Questions
- NH Industries. The consortium that makes the NH90.
- GlobalSecurity.org: NH 90
- Naval Technology – NH90 NFH – ASW / Transport Helicopter, Europe
- Australian Army choose Roll-Royce Turbomeca engines for MRH-90s. Offers good details re: long term costs and spinoffs. Australia’s purchase of 12 NH90s is on track to become a $1 billion program, once support and other costs are factored in.
- GlobalSecurity.org: H-60 Blackhawk Family
- GlobalSecureity.org: S-92 Superhawk
- New Zealand Parliament (Nov 15/11) – Briefing on major defence projects. From NZ-OAG to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
- New Zealand Office of the Auditor General (2008) – Reporting the progress of defence acquisition projects – Medium Utility Helicopter and Training/Light Utility Helicopter