Naval Air: Try Your Best, And Cover Your Ass


February 7, 2011: China has ordered 27 Russian Ka-28/31 naval helicopters over the last 13 years. Most have been delivered and China is apparently happy with them. China is less pleased with an effort to develop its own Z-8 naval helicopter. China eventually built twenty Z-8s, and uses them on some of their warships. But for the more serious stuff, like anti-submarine operations, they bought Russian models.

The problem with the Z-8 was that it was built with stolen tech. China's track record of technology theft is breathtaking, but frequently these efforts are much less successful than were hoped. One such case was the Chinese copy of the French Super Frelon (SA-321) helicopter. This aircraft is often used on ships. China bought some SA-321s in the early 1970s, and by 1976 were working on reverse engineering them and producing their own, illegal, version. The first flight of the SA-321 clone (called the Z-8) took place in 1985. But there were too many technical problems, plus the French were none too happy about this bit of theft, and made their displeasure known. China has persisted, as the Z-8B is now in production. But only about half a dozen have entered service. A more powerful engine, and hundreds of technical improvements, have still not produced a chopper the Chinese military is willing to pay for. The navy was content with the original SA-321s, but the Z-8 clones were  only considered adequate for limited uses.

The 12 ton Ka-28 entered service in 1982, in the Soviet (later Russian) navy as an anti-submarine aircraft, while the Ka-31 is equipped with a large radar (that is deployed underneath the helicopter once it is in the air), and acts as an early warning radar aircraft. The Ka-28/31 have a cruising speed of 205 kilometers an hour, and a top speed 270 kilometers an hour. Sorties for both helicopters average 3-4 hours. Both have a useful load of four tons (weapons and additional electronics). The Ka-28s and three Ka-31s are export versions of the more lavishly equipped Ka-27, used by the Russian navy. This family of naval helicopters do not have the finish, reliability or reputation of Western models, but the Ka-27 type costs a lot less, and still gets the job done.

France retired the last of its SA321 Super Frelon helicopters last year. The French Navy had wanted to retire the SA321s since the 1990s, as these choppers date from the 1960s. Retirement finally became possible when, three years ago, it was revealed that a third of the SA321s were unavailable for service because of age related maintenance issues. Then it was revealed that the SA321s also tended to fail at inopportune times in the combat zone.

Only 99 SA321s were built (plus Chinese copies), and most were used by nine different nations they were exported to. Designed as a naval helicopter, most ended up serving as troop and cargo transports. The SA321 is a three engine, 13 ton aircraft with a crew of five and a capacity of 27 passengers. Naval versions were often armed with four torpedoes or two anti-ship missiles, plus a 20mm autocannon. Endurance was four hours.


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