Air Transportation: Troubled NH90 Makes It To The Big Time


September 10, 2012: Last month was the first time NH90 helicopters have flown in Afghanistan. This happened in August when the first two (of six) Italian NH90s arrived and were put to work. The Italians and the manufacturer are hoping for the best. The NH90 has shown an uncanny ability to develop problems no one anticipated. New user New Zealand, for example, recently encountered problems with 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 NH90s, a helicopter that entered service five years ago.

Complaints about the NH90 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 NH90 were fixed. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH90 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 NH90 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 by combat troops. There was not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There were 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 NH90. But most of the problems were fixed. What bothered users most were that these basic problems were not noted earlier and taken care of before delivery. Now the NH90 is in Afghanistan, a place that has proved difficult for helicopter designs that have been around for a while. The NH90 could have an interesting time in the high, hot, and dusty environment there. But once the NH90 has survived its Afghan experience, it will be "combat proven" and much easier to sell.

Despite its history of delays and problems the NH90 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 NH90 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 NH90. What the NH90 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 NH90 and can only carry eleven troops. Blackhawk max speed is 285 kilometers an hour and endurance is 2.1 hours. The NH90 has more powerful engines and larger fuel capacity. The big difference is in cost, with new NH90s more than twice as expensive as a new Blackhawk. But the UH-60 is combat proven and popular with combat troops. That often makes the difference for export customers.

For many bargain conscious nations, Russian helicopters are preferred. In particular, the Mi-8, usually the Mi-17 export version, is still in big demand. This fifty year old design is about twice the size and weight of its contemporary, the slightly older 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. Nearly 3,000 Mi-17s have been exported. If you want the best (or at least most expensive) you get the NH90, 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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