Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 51 seconds.
Photos by Anthony Pecci
France’s 33rd and 31st flotillas began flying the NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) in 2011 and 2012, respectively, after jettisoning legacy rotorcraft serving anti-submarine and support roles. Ten years after its initial fielding with the French Navy, the “Caiman,” as the French navy calls the aircraft, is now fully mature, with operational capabilities described as remarkable by all users, particularly when associated with France’s new multi-mission frigates. However, some difficulties remain with bringing both units’ fleets up to the most-modern standards.
Of the 27 budgeted aircraft (including 14 with a rear ramp and 13 without a ramp), 26 have been delivered. The last is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2021 and each flotilla flies both versions of the helicopter, with and without a ramp. All NFHs can carry a complete anti-submarine weapon system, but the ramp is useful for transporting bulky cargo, for example an M88 jet engine for the Dassault Rafale fighter jet. Logically, this is the preferred configuration when embarking on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
Like all modern aircraft, NFHs have been fielded in various configurations since they first entered service a decade ago. Two iterations — called step A and step B — were deployed before the aircraft achieved full radar capabilities (FRC). The final MR1 standard, marking full combat capability, brought another incremental increase in capability.
The French navy juggled for several years with these different standards, weighing the constraints of logistics and maintenance. The objective of having a homogeneous fleet to the MR1 standard, synonymous with full maturity of the combat system, is now well underway. About half the aircraft in service were brought to this level after a visit to Airbus Helicopters or to the Atelier Industriel Aéronautique (state owned arsenal) from Cuers. Bringing an early step-A aircraft to the MR1 standard requires 20 months of work and includes modifying a large part of the wiring. The delay is a little less painful for helicopters already upgraded to step B, with a pit stop of 17 months to reach the MR1 standard. This explains why nearly a third of the Caimans delivered are now grounded, undergoing scheduled maintenance or modernization.
For the 31F and 33F flotillas, flying the Caiman has resulted in a significant leap forward in operational capability compared with the legacy Aérospatiale SA 32 Super Frelon and Westland Lynx. The primary mission of helicopters deployed aboard frigates is anti-submarine warfare, with a dipping sonar as the main defensive system.
“Thales’s Flash sonar, coupled with the use of sonobuoys and MU90 torpedoes, perfectly meets our expectations,” said Cdr. Florian Edus, officer in command of 33F. “The experience feedback is very good and our knowledge of the equipment now allows us to troubleshoot it autonomously during sea embarkation.”
All the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment, sonar, associated console and buoy launcher weigh a total of approximately 1,100 pounds (500 kg) or 1,500 pounds (700 kg) with all the buoys loaded onboard. It is possible to remove the sonar array to optimize the helicopter’s payload, but it the flotillas generally change configuration as seldom as possible to avoid any damage which may occur during the process.
Each flotilla maintains an ASW alert that allows it to respond quickly to an engagement from land or sea. The flotillas also are ready to put to sea on short notice; 31F from its base in Hyères facing the Mediterranean and 33F from Lanvéoc-Poulmic, on the Atlantic shore. The Caimans, equipped with a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun, can also perform maritime counterterrorism missions, logistics transport in support of an aircraft carrier and at-sea rescue with an operational range up to 150 nautical miles (277 km) from the coast. The 33F flotilla is particularly committed to this mission, maintaining two 24/7 Public Intervention Service bases in Cherbourg and Lanvéoc-Poulmic.
31F does not have to maintain such bases on its own, even if it happens occasionally to engage its aircraft in rescue missions on land or at sea. The Mediterranean-based flotilla dedicates a good part of its activity in support of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, performing logistics flights and surface surveillance missions for which it is working on better tactical integration with the carrier group and in particular with the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.
“Operating from the aircraft carrier does not require any special qualification for our crews,” said Cdr. Augustin Aubret, commander of 31F. “We are just careful to assign an experienced crew. This crew, pilot, tactical coordinator (TACCO) and multi-sensor operator is posted for at least one year, from one summer to the next, which allows it to follow the entire ramp-up program of the aircraft carrier, while perfecting its own know-how. If necessary, a second crew can also be assigned as reinforcements. The technical team includes 9 to 11 specialists, one of whom is also qualified to act as a rescue man.”
The Caiman is seen as a very capable aircraft in the flotillas but its electronic warfare suite is long overdue for operational missions, as some automated functions are not yet developed. The system is complex and not available for daily use, crewmembers told Valor. Upgrading the software is one possible solution, but no plan to do so is in place.
Another challenge is there often too few crew available to respond to all necessary missions and essential training requirements.
“We manned three detachments in 2019, on the Aquitaine, Bretagne and Normandie frigates,” said Edus. “But today we are facing the idea of creating more onboard detachments than what was planned when the Caiman was commissioned. The navy wants to double the crews of its FREMMs in order to maximize their presence at sea. This means that we will go from four detachments in 2020 to five in 2021 then, at the rate of one creation per year, to eight in 2024 or 2025. We will therefore have to make some critical choices because it is not sure we will have all the trained crew and helicopters to meet the operational requirements.”
This ambitious growth forecast requires the flotilla to dedicate numerous resources, and in particular experienced crew members and technical teams, to the training of new recruits, so that they are able to work independently on ships, over long periods of time and away from the flotilla. Maintenance is organized within the 33F in five detachments, one in Cherbourg and four on the frigates, all of which are backed by a central nucleus at Lanvéoc-Poulmic.
The growth plan is the same at 31st flotilla with a decade-long phase of relentless build-up scheduled. With a workforce limited for the moment to 200 people, including 170 technicians and around 30 crew members, 31F is also faced with the question of doubling the detachments available for the frigates. Here too, choices will have to be made and no doubt the training programs will have to be based on the operational needs of the ships. In the summer of 2021, however, the flotilla was able to meet all naval requirements, with no FREMM sailing without its Caiman detachment.
While waiting for an increase in the fleet and personnel increases, pooling the helicopters — which will be greatly facilitated when all are at the MR1 standard — trading training tools and experience between the two flotillas could improve readiness.
“Crew exchanges between the flotillas are however very rare because normally each unit is fully autonomous in its operation,” Aubret said.. “But we do not refrain from occasionally exchanging a pilot, a tactical coordinator or a ‘senso’ when the mission demands.”
Constraints which weigh on the crews are also found at the maintenance level. The flotillas are responsible for inspections before and after flight, but also between each flight. What is more, the helicopters are systematically rinsed with fresh water at the end of the day, with particular attention paid to the engines. In addition to this ramp maintenance, maintainers do a comprehensive check, lasting two to three months, every 300 flight hours. For the 900-hour check, the helicopter is flown to the manufacturer for a complete overhaul, which can last a full year, and longer if unscheduled maintenance is required. Unforeseen issues — particularly related to corrosion — are no uncommon with naval aircraft.
“Fighting corrosion is a constant battle » said crewmembers based at both Hyères and Lanvéoc-Poulmic. “We are still walking on two legs in this fight: there is what we can do at the flotilla’s level, and then there is what the manufacturer can offer in his maintenance plan which is constantly evolving based on our feedback. These two areas of progress must be pushed simultaneously for it to work and for the Caiman to truly deploy its full potential, which is immense.”
A crew of three
Uniquely, the French navy flies its Caiman helicopters with a single pilot onboard, in the right seat. In the left front seat sits the tactical coordinator (TACCO). One challenge is to mature young pilots and TACCOs arriving in the flotilla so they can quickly assume their role as captain in the case of the pilot, or as mission commander for the TACCO.
After their naval training on Alouette III and Dauphin N helicopters with 34F flotilla, student pilots are qualified on the NH90 within the CFIA (Joint Training Center, which also train the army pilots) of Luc en Provence. Training begins with three months in a simulator and progresses to fifteen hours of flight on the army’s version of the NH90, called the tactical transport helicopter (TTH). The student pilot is then assigned to a flotilla and formally declared a “pilot in training.” After twenty hours of daytime flight, the pilot is “confirmed”.
The next phase of training, around 30 hours of night flying, confirms the pilot as “day and night” qualified. Landing qualification is conducted out in parallel with phase three. With experience, pilots eventually progress to the rank of captain, which allows them to fly alongside less experienced TACCOs. Conversely, experienced TACCOs team up with less-experienced pilots.
The third crew member is the multi-sensor operator or “senso”, responsible of the sensors, radar, FLIR camera, sonar, buoys and, if necessary, a regular camera equipped with a powerful zoom for image intelligence. The senso also plays the role of winch operator because the winches are permanently fitted on the helicopter, an impromptu rescue operation being always possible at sea.
TACCOs receive tactical training allowing them to conduct anti-surface or anti-submarine missions. But they are also trained to fly the aircraft as an assistant to the pilot in charge, one TACCO said.
“We have a very good knowledge of the helicopter, and we are able to manage trajectories or emergencies in flight,” the TACCO said. “We even practice regularly in order to be able to fly the helicopter on autopilot and land it if the pilot is incapacitated.”