As governments and civilian operators in search and rescue (SAR), helicopter emergency services (HEMS), firefighting, civil protection and combat search and rescue (CSAR) seek to renew or extend the life of their fleets with state-of-the-art modifications, what are they looking for – and what can they expect to get for their money?
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was a slogan popularized by the US government during World War II to encourage Americans to make a virtue of wartime austerity. It still has a certain resonance.
Doing without isn’t an option for emergency service operators in an increasingly stressed sector – but, for some, making do with and upgrading workhorse airframes that still have many years’ service left is still a viable option. That said, ‘future-proofing’ of new aircraft types through a combination of open architecture, predictive maintenance and by-design multi-role capabilities make buying new models the preferred long-term solution for those with big enough budgets.
Private sector and governmental operators all over the world face ever-increasing demands on their helicopter and fixed-wing fleets. These range from fighting more, bigger and more heavily-publicized wildfires such as those in recent months in Greece, Hawaii, Canada and the Canary Islands, to calls for medevac resulting from other natural disasters such as recent floods in China, India and California, coping with mass public order offenses. There are also more exotically 21st-century tasks such as monitoring overloaded migrant vessels in the Mediterranean and curbing drug trafficking in Latin America.
Public sector decisions
Public agencies are especially vulnerable to public demands to expand their capacity to meet such crises – predictable or otherwise. At the same time, though, their budgets are often constrained.
A case in point is the UK’s National Police Aviation Service (NPAS), which was formed in 2012 to centralize air support for 43 police services in England and Wales, which previously operated their own helicopters. NPAS inherited a fleet of 19 aging H135 T2, H135 P2 and H145 rotorcraft, some of them now as much as 18 years old and equipped with MX15 imaging systems that were originally fitted to the service’s even older AS355N fleet.
In 2014, NPAS contracted Babcock Mission Critical Services Onshore to equip seven of its H135 T2s with upgraded camera and mission systems but, nine years on, that looks like a stopgap solution that has run out of time as the fleet’s airframes are increasingly showing their age. The youngest helicopters in the NPAS fleet are the batch of H135 T2 rotorcraft purchased by the UK Home Office in 2010, prior to the formation of the service. Acquisition of new aircraft has been stalled by lack of financing from the UK government, so NPAS struggles to maximize the hours its fleet spends in the air, with diminishing returns for its efforts.
Where it goes wrong is where the operator expects to get 1,000 hours a year out of elderly airframes
“Where it goes wrong is where the operator expects to get 1,000 hours a year out of elderly airframes. It just does not happen,” said respected commentator on the police aviation (POLAV) scene, Bryn Elliott, Editor of UK-based ‘Police Aviation News’.
Better funded police aviation services elsewhere in Europe tend to have more realistic expectations, Elliott suggests.
“If you look at most operators, they aim at an annual use of 200–400 hours an airframe, a scenario that is supported by lower expectations per airframe and often a larger fleet. German police, for instance, utilize 400 hours over 10 years and sell or exchange the fleet with 4,000 hours on them,” he said.
In this context, then, does it make good sense for operators to continue maintaining and upgrading the kit they have, whether re-engining rotorcraft or bolting on the latest imaging and communications and control systems?
Opinion within the broader industry is divided. On the whole, manufacturers brandish the benefits of investing in new fleets rather than making do, pointing out that their newest types are intended to be upgradable for decades ahead.
“The combination of open architecture, modern predictive maintenance, by-design multi-role capabilities and latest certification/safety standards make new models most of the time today the preferred solution, unless an existing fleet is suitable for an upgrade – able to uprate its standards and capabilities to the latest degree of capabilities,” said a spokesman for helicopter manufacturer Leonardo.
Fellow manufacturer Airbus sees relatively little demand for engine upgrades; Jorg Michel, Airbus spokesman said: “Most of the time, our customers opt for new helicopters as they offer better performance, more capabilities and more modern equipment.”
Airbus has handled some upgrades for its police aviation client, Bavarian State Police (BSP), but – in sharp contrast to the UK’s cash-strapped NPAS – the BSP has opted for wholesale replacement of its 12-year-old H135 fleet with new H145s, touted by Airbus as the most advanced rotorcraft available for law enforcement.
Two H145s were handed over to BSP for training in April 2023, with the first fully-equipped H145 to be delivered in 2024 and five more to follow.
Operators, though, point out the upsides of keeping airworthy workhorses operational by retrofitting new engines and state-of-the-art mission systems into existing fleets.
“Modern SAR aircraft are strictly maintained to exacting standards and airframes can offer a long operational lifespan,” pointed out Neil Ebberson, Director of Government Services at Bristow Helicopters, which operates SAR operations on behalf of the UK Coast Guard.
He continued: “Working alongside original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), we are able to integrate new capabilities into our global SAR fleet, ensuring that the capability remains relevant and on the cutting edge for years to come.
“New imaging cameras, improved radar, more capable communications systems, aircraft equipment and mission systems can help make SAR operations more efficient, more resilient to hostile weather and, ultimately, better able to deliver lifesaving results.
For the next generation of SAR in the UK, we are integrating both new technologies and new aircraft types, while upgrading our existing aircraft with new technologies
“For the next generation of SAR in the UK, we are integrating both new technologies and new aircraft types, while upgrading our existing aircraft with new technologies. Under the new contract, we are integrating the AW139 into the UK fleet, which will work seamlessly alongside the S-92 and AW189 helicopters. Upgrades planned for the existing aircraft include important new capabilities like the ARTEMIS mobile phone location and communications system. This will ensure we keep our UK customer on the leading edge of SAR innovation and capability for years to come.”
A cynic might argue that manufacturers have a vested interest in selling brand new kit. Builders do recognize, though, that potential clients are often constrained by their budgets.
Buying a brand-new aircraft or modifying an existing aircraft is a significant decision for any operator
“Buying a brand-new aircraft or modifying an existing aircraft is a significant decision for any operator,” said Terry Miyauchi, Public Safety Segment Manager for helicopter manufacturer Bell.
“With new comes the obvious benefits of obtaining the newest technology and enhanced performance. But with that comes the major decision point of budget,” added Miyauchi.
Bell, Miyauchi suggested, can offer the best of both worlds: “Bell is uniquely positioned to provide all-new aircraft solutions, while at the same time offering a wide array of modifications to existing platforms.
“The Bell 412 family of aircraft includes nine different models over four decades and 12 million plus global fleet hours from more than 2,200 deliveries. The first Bell 412 is very different from the newest model, the Subaru Bell 412EPX. Some customers opt for conversion modifications for their Bell 412, like a Bell 412EP to a Bell 412EPI, gaining a modern-day glass cockpit and its advantages.”
Most airframes are long-lived, so some SAR, HEMS and POLAV operators in the public and private sectors continue to operate fleets that include multiple fixed-wing and rotorcraft types.
“Operators can find an ease of training and maintenance streamlining when operating a fleet from only one OEM. We typically see operators with less than 10 aircraft trending towards this concept due to the cost savings it can provide,” said Miyauchi.
That said, some operators still favor the flexibility that a diversity of suppliers can offer.
“We still see operators, specifically in the European region, that prefer to have a variety of OEMs represented in their fleet. Bell continues to grow its presence in this region with recent sales to Polish National Police and Air Zermatt for alpine rescue,” added Miyauchi.
In an ideal world, operators with fleets of aging aircraft might wish they were in a position to replace them entirely, like Bavaria’s BSP. In the real world, not all are so fortunate, conceded the spokesperson for Leonardo.
Ultimately, the decision to opt for upgrade or modification of the existing fleet balanced against buying all new helicopters is dependent on considerations like actual budget availability, certification standards and tender requirements. All of these elements affect decisions for both private service suppliers, governments and, thus, manufacturers, the spokesperson for Leonardo pointed out.
For customers without deep pockets, modernizing their existing fleets can be a realistic option, at least in the short to medium term. Looking further ahead, manufacturers like Leonardo are looking to produce equipment that is proofed against obsolescence well into the future.
The spokesperson for Leonardo explained: “Very low budgets might turn into extensive overhaul of retired aircraft acquired through bilateral agreements, a wide spectrum of modernization efforts of in-service aging types depending on which systems and equipment the operators might require. Upgrades of modern helicopters with a 15–20 years’ life-cycle margin left would solely require the integration of the very latest capabilities to achieve the most advanced standards for the type.”
It is worth underlining that the latest generation rotorcraft, even more so the next generation ones, feature a true open architecture by design
They continued: “It is worth underlining that the latest generation rotorcraft, even more so the next generation ones, feature a true open architecture by design and show levels of growth potential that were simply unavailable just 20–30 years ago.
“This means they are designed to allow easy integration of new systems over decades. The cabin modularity of modern helicopter types makes them more flexible to meet true multi-role requirements, making them even more attractive to customers. This adds to a maintenance-oriented design to allow easier and faster support activities, driving costs down.”
In the final analysis, those operators who can find the resources to replace their fleets with all-new, latest-generation types will save money and resources in years, even decades to come. For private sector operators, that may be relatively easy. For those whose purse-strings are more tightly held by national, regional or federal agencies, it may be a bigger challenge.