Air Transportation: NH-90 Stumbles To Success

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April 19, 2012: The New Zealand Air Force has received eight NH-90 helicopters and, like most new users of this model, has encountered problems. The major hassles involved objects being sucked into the engines and difficulty operating in snow. Both problems were fixed but it left people wondering why these issues had not been noted earlier. So far, 16 countries have ordered over 500 NH-90s, a helicopter that entered service five years ago.

Complaints about the NH-90 are not new. Two years ago the German Army Air Mobility and Air Transport School conducted an evaluation. They had a lot of complaints. Their conclusion was that, for combat missions, another model helicopter should be used whenever possible until some serious flaws with the NH-90 were fixed.

A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH-90 couldn't land on a piece of ground with any obstacles higher than 16 cm (6.4 inches). That made many battlefield landing zones problematic. That assumed you can even get on a NH-90 and find a seat. The passenger seats could not hold more than 110 kg (242 pounds). Combat equipment for German troops weighs 25 kg (55 pounds), meaning any soldier weighing more than 85 kg (187) has to take stuff off, put it on the floor, than quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there's the floor, it's not very sturdy and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while caused damage that took the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there was the rear ramp. It could not support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There was not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There was no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also did not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch was not sturdy enough for commandoes to perform fast roping operations. And so on. The Germans were not pleased with their initial encounter with the NH-90. But most of the problems were fixed. What bothered users was these basic problems were not noted earlier and taken care of before delivering the helicopters.

Meanwhile, the NH-90 is eating into the export market for American made UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopters. Over 500 NH90s have been sold so far and often they beat out Blackhawks for sales. American armed forces currently use some 2,000 Blackhawks, and hundreds more have been sold to overseas customers.

The ten ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995. The manufacturer, NH Industries, is a consortium of French, German, Dutch, and Italian firms. The Blackhawk design is twenty years older than that of the NH-90. What the NH-90 is doing now is catching up in the experience department. Although the latest version of the Blackhawk is up to date technically, it is slightly smaller and lighter than the NH-90 and can only carry eleven troops. Blackhawk max speed is 285 kilometers an hour and endurance is 2.1 hours. The NH-90 has more powerful engines and larger fuel capacity. The big difference is in cost, with new NH-90s more than twice as expensive as a new Blackhawk. But the UH-60 is combat proven and popular with combat troops.

For many bargain conscious nations, Russian helicopters are preferred. In particular, the Mi-8, or export version called Mi-17, are still in big demand. This chopper is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 has a larger interior and can carry 24 troops, versus a dozen in the UH-1. The UH-1 was replaced by the UH-60 in the 1980s, while the Mi-8 just kept adding better engines and electronics to the basic Mi-8 frame. But the UH-60, while weighing twice as much as the UH-1 (4.8 tons), could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. However, the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60 and the larger interior is popular with many users. Nearly 3,000 Mi-17s have been exported. If you want the best (or at least most expensive) you get the NH-90, if you want mobility for the least cost you get the Mi-17. If you want something in between you get the UH-60. Many peacekeeping and humanitarian operations go for the Mi-17, which can be leased from East European firms, complete with maintenance crews and English speaking pilots.

 


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