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A high-class interim

By Frédéric Lert

Published on: April 25, 2024
Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 18 seconds.

The Lanvéoc-Poulmic French Naval Air Base’s Airbus H160 interim fleet are hard at work within the 32F flotilla. While the crew is military, the owner of the aircraft, Babcock International Group, remains private.

To bridge the gap between the withdrawal of the last Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters and the arrival of the first Airbus H160M Guépard Marine scheduled from 2029, the French Navy has decided to call on an interim fleet for public service missions.

Part of this fleet is made up of Airbus Dauphin N3s, intended to operate from ships at sea. The other part of the fleet is made up of six H160 helicopters operating from land. These helicopters, tasked with rescue and intervention missions at sea, are used by the 32F flotilla.

Donned in military colors and equipped with a winch, a Euroflir 410 electro-optical system (FLIR) and night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility, the aircraft can carry out military missions. However, they operate under a civil registration and don’t carry any weapons or military radios.

Although it is a purely civilian aircraft, the Airbus H160 offers a level of performance that is a source of satisfaction within the 32F flotilla. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Fast forward

The first aircraft arrived at the Naval Aeronautics Practical Experimentation and Reception Center on Sept. 22, 2022, to begin its military experimentation and “marine” certification. At the same time, the first crews of the 32F flotilla were being trained.

Today, the 32F is installed in prefabs made to last in the eastern part of Lanvéoc Naval Air Base. The H160s share the apron with the Dauphins of the 34F/ESHE (helicopter specialization school), installed in a neighboring hangar.

“We had a year to set up the flotilla, train the crews and open a first SAR [search-and-rescue] detachment in Cherbourg,” said commander Sébastien Bayet. “In just under 12 months, we have gone from one aircraft and a crew trained to five aircraft in service [now six] with all the human and technical environment we have today. The challenge was great but what helped us a lot was the unique and well-known main mission: search-and-rescue at sea. We are not starting from scratch for that.”

Beyond SAR and protection and intervention missions, the H160s can also be used for various complementary secondary missions, such as counter-terrorism or escorting SSBN departing or returning from their patrols.

The 32F began in 2023 with experienced captains who displayed good knowledge of sea rescue work. It was above all a question of ensuring flight safety and optimizing training times. Things were relatively simple since the task was “only” to train the experienced pilots on their new helicopter.

The recruitment started to evolve at the end of 2023, and the fleet is now receiving freshly qualified young pilots. Assigned as copilots to the 32F, they have the opportunity to gain experience through contact with their experienced mentors.

“The logic is the same for the crew members,” Bayet said. “We started our activity with seasoned people who were trained on the H160 and we now receive young chaps who qualify in each specialty by following programs that we have defined ourselves.”

Donned in military colors and equipped with a winch, a Euroflir 410 electro-optical system (FLIR) and night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility, the Airbus H160 aircraft can carry out public service military missions. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Essential FLIR

Senior Petty Officer Vanessa (her last name withheld due to French Navy protocol) is one of the experienced non-commissioned officers. She already had a solid experience as a crew member on the Westland Lynx, NH90 Caiman and Alouette III helicopters before joining the 32F.

“A prospection was launched in the flotillas and as I already had good experience in SAR missions on the Caiman, I was selected,” she said. “[With] the H160 being smaller than the Caiman, we had to adapt the equipment and format of our bags. But the H160 still remains large and can carry a crew of six people on a rescue mission: two pilots, a winch operator, a diver, a doctor and a nurse. And we can additionally install medical equipment, including a stretcher.”

Three rescue divers, who also participate in the routine maintenance of the helicopters, are permanently assigned to the flotilla, but they work in a pool on the base with rescue divers from other units, which allows for cross-pollination of experiences.

The procedures are standardized between aircraft, but technical particularities mean that rescue divers only carry out maintenance on the helicopters in their assigned fleet. In the cabin of the H160, the winch operator has a workstation with a screen allowing them to control the FLIR, which is mainly used from this seat. However, the FLIR can also be controlled by the copilot in the cockpit’s left seat.

“We work as a team with the pilots,” Vanessa said. “They give us geographical coordinates or tell us an azimuth and a distance and we use this information to find the target. The use of this high-performance FLIR represents valuable assistance in rescue missions and we constantly train with this equipment. Not having it makes us lose efficiency, and the slightest maritime overflight is used to get the hang of it.”

The H160 cabin can essentially be configured in three ways: cargo, rescue (which includes an add-on waterproof floor to prevent saltwater infiltration into the aircraft) or passenger transport. Switching from one configuration to another can be done in just a few minutes. The helicopters are equipped with several GoPro-like cameras, which are triggered automatically when the aircraft is powered on. One is placed in the cockpit, another at the top of the fin, a third on the lifting hook, and the last fixed on the winch. The images are used to analyze the flights and possible incidents. They also provide exceptional testimony to rescue missions at sea.

Whether it is refueling the helicopter at sea as part of a distant rescue or a medical evacuation, deck landing is a scenario that has already been experienced by the Cherbourg detachment during a real intervention. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Deck landing operations

The daily activity relies on a strong technical echelon of around 30 technicians who were chosen because of their experience. By intensively using the interim fleet’s H160s, the French Navy has a role in “de-risking” the H160M program. Military maintainers benefit from the support of a few civilian technicians grouped together in a temporary joint venture in Lanvéoc, with two people from Airbus Helicopters, six from Babcock, and one from Safran Helicopter Engines. Civilian technicians can also be found in the different detachments.

As a result, with adequate support, flight hours are increasing rapidly and have already exceeded the 1,000-mark as of the end of November 2023.

“We are the world leader in the use of the H160,” Bayet said. “The French Navy fleet currently represents a third of the flight hours of the global H160 fleet. Maturity gradually sets in with the use we make of the helicopter because we are, in a certain way, [the] precursors.”

The flotilla has, for example, opened the deck landing operation at sea with the H160. On the other hand, posting a full-size detachment on a boat is not on the agenda. Whether it is refueling the helicopter at sea as part of a distant rescue or a medical evacuation, deck landing is a scenario that has already been experienced by the Cherbourg detachment during a real intervention.

“During the evacuation of a casualty from an oil tanker transiting the channel, the captain chose, for operational efficiency, to land directly on the boat rather than hoisting the patient,” Bayet said. “All our captains are deck landing qualified, which is validated by a test. Again, the fact that the flotilla started its activity with very experienced pilots helped us a lot. For the copilot, this qualification is not mandatory, but if it is, so much the better.”

Flight hours for the Airbus H160s are increasing rapidly and have already exceeded the 1,000-mark as of the end of November 2023. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Efficient rotor

Although it is a purely civilian aircraft, the H160 offers a level of performance that is a source of satisfaction within the 32F. The aircraft can start taxiing at a maximum mass of 6.1 metric tons (13,500 pounds) and take off at 6.05 metric tons (13,300 lb), with two metric tons (4,400 lb) of payload to be distributed between fuel and crew.

With six people on board — four crew members, a doctor and a nurse — the aircraft keeps enough power available to leave with a full tank (1.1 metric tons or 2,425 lb), which is very appreciable. With an average consumption of around 300 kilograms (660 lb) per hour, it offers around 20 minutes of autonomy at 150 nautical miles (280 kilometers) depending on the speed chosen, which is a performance equivalent to that of the NH90, although with a smaller cabin, but at a much lower operating cost. The hold placed at the rear of the fuselage also allows up to 300 kg (660 lb) of equipment to be carried, but it is not accessible in flight.

A drawback of the helicopter, linked to its civilian origin, is the lack of a fuel-dump system. As a result, pilots need to plan ahead to ensure the crew isn’t recovering too many people during a rescue mission without having had time to burn fuel to lighten their load.

Of course, operating at sea level and currently in Brittany, France, where temperatures are rarely scorching, makes life easier for everyone. Although the heat is not excessive, gales are frequent. The H160 also scores points with its semi-rigid rotor that makes the aircraft comfortable on long flights and further reduces crew fatigue.

Each detachment flies a single helicopter operated by two crews that take turns in 15-day shifts to ensure a 24/7 alert. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The Lanvéoc-Poulmic Naval Base

The Lanvéoc-Poulmic Naval Base houses the flotilla’s headquarters and its main operation. Three detachments under the flotilla’s command complete the picture. The Cherbourg detachment has been autonomous since July 2023 when its H160 replaced an NH90 Caiman. The second detachment was created in December 2023 and posted in Lanvéoc, close to the flotilla, and the third opened in Hyères in Southern France.

Each detachment flies a single helicopter operated by two crews that take turns in 15-day shifts to ensure a 24/7 alert. Each crew includes two pilots, a rescue diver who is also a technician, and a hoist operator. Two technicians are attached to each crew to ensure online maintenance on the ground. The crew are fully autonomous in their premises (meals, administrative tasks, etc.), which have living and rest areas.

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