The AW149 is very exciting for us here at Leonardo in Yeovil, the ’home of British helicopters’, and whilst we haven’t produced AW149s here before, the site has 100-plus years of end-to-end capability. End-to-end means the design, development, manufacture, testing and certification of helicopters, as well as the subsequent training and support for customers. We’ve been integral to the development of the AW149 from the outset. We’re pitching this aircraft as the new medium helicopter replacement for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) requirement, predominantly as the Puma support helicopter, but this is only one of four roles the aircraft can perform; it can also be utilized as a Special Forces aircraft, a jungle support aircraft, and pure SAR. If you amalgamate all those roles together, that encapsulates what you’re looking for from a combat SAR helicopter.
We’re pitching this aircraft as the new medium helicopter replacement for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) requirement, predominantly as the Puma support helicopter
It’s what’s inside that counts
It’s like a TARDIS – compact on the outside, but with a large cabin for a medium-type aircraft, which is perfect for troop insertion, for example, in a small Landing Zone. The AW149 is a medium multirole helicopter sitting at 8.6 tonnes, with a large, uniform cabin – making it ideal for extraction, onboard medical treatment, and carrying fighting troops. In practical terms, this large cabin space means that troops can be carried comfortably, and can accommodate stretchers sideways, allowing medical teams to move around the casualty and conduct procedures whilst having the space to accommodate lifesaving equipment too.
For combat SAR, there’s sufficient seating in the back for an extraction team. It can be fitted with fast roping frames to enable the crew to get into a hot landing zone to go and extract soldiers. Extracting individuals can be done flexibly – if the aircraft isn’t able to land for whatever reason, you can deploy troops out via fast rope rappelling and then recover them via hoist. The aircraft can also be equipped with Crew Served Weapons, deployed from the cabin windows, far from the cabin doors.
Need for speed
For a helicopter, certainly current Ministry of Defence fleet helicopters, it’s fast, which is very important in a combat SAR mission where time is critical. Speed is your friend and in terms of getting in and out of hostile areas quickly – you’re reducing the time for the enemy to detect you and react. With quite a compact
With quite a compact footprint, the aircraft can fly and maneuver aggressively in a military environment
footprint, the aircraft can fly and maneuver aggressively in a military environment and its handling qualities and power enable it to maneuver low level map of the earth again, radar terrain masking, and do all those sorts of things that you would want to do in that role. The aircraft can have a full icing clearance so you can have heated main rotor blades, heated tail rotor blades, heated engine intakes, heated windscreens. The aircraft can go out in the most horrendous weather conditions day and night effectively with no limits to icing, which is a massive capability leap as not a lot of helicopters have that. It’s quite a game changer, particularly in combat SAR mission where you don’t necessarily have the luxury of choosing your weather window when you want to go, you have just got to go when you are needed to go.
A good offense is…
The aircraft has defensive aid systems so whatever you want to put on it, the aircraft is compatible with all of that. All the radar warnings, all of the electronic countermeasures, the electronic support measures, those aspects are fully compatible with the aircraft so that you’re covered on the defensive side. On the offensive side, on this aircraft, you can operate and access the two large cabin doors without getting in the way or impacting the ability of the forward crew member to engage any threats. It can also be fitted with laser guided or unguided rockets, and missiles fitted into the aircraft, giving you that organic offensive capability going into any extraction.
The AW149 also has a unique 50-minute run-dry transmission, self-sealing ballistic tolerant fuel tanks, cockpit floor and door armor to protect the pilot and co-pilot, cabin floor ballistic protections, and ballistic tolerance of critical components designed in from the outset, amongst many other capabilities to support operators in the CSAR environment as required.
In the cockpit, we have four multipurpose displays in the front that are highly configurable in terms of what mission information we want to go on. We have primary flight displays and synthetic vision systems; electro optical information on the building maps can be fitted with things like obstacle path, warning systems almost like a parking sensor on the aircraft where you’re getting close in confined areas or cliff faces if you’re doing CSAR missions. Emergency handling is aided by a camera around the back on the tail. You can also have cameras on hoist and cargo hook underneath, enabling better situational awareness for the crew.
Real world mission capability
The feedback we have from customers with this and other derivatives is that they are very happy and that it is a very capable aircraft. We have got tens of thousands flying experience hours in my department, across all roles, combat SAR, support helicopters, attack helicopters, training, operations testing, all of whom have tested it and reported that it is a great aircraft to fly.
For me it is a compact, maneuverable aircraft, so if I need to get it into a confined area, or the back of a ship, I know I can get there confidently, as the handling qualities allow me to place it where I want it in order to achieve the mission. Flying tactically as you are required to do, it is very predictable in terms of the flight path.
The aircraft is certified for single pilot instrument flight rules (IFR), so my workload is sufficiently low that I can comfortably do it all by myself, navigate and look at airborne threat. In a combat SAR mission, the customer would probably choose to have two pilots in the front or two crewmen plus a medic, but the aircraft itself can be flown from a navigation from a flight path perspective quite comfortably by one pilot. The flip side of that means it frees up my pilot to be part of the mission, or not working solely on navigating and flying the aircraft. They can actually be one of the crew looking at the wider mission, which is a very important piece, but also if it is a long mission, they can rest before that critical phase of the flight. Depending on the flight regime and the amount of fuel, it has got about five hours endurance, So the outcome can go a long way, and then when it gets to the critical phases, then pilot does what they are trained to do.
It has got a very rugged undercarriage for landing aggressively on a ship or rough undulating terrain. It has got a nice, wide undercarriage and small footprint and for unloading, it’s got big doors to get troops on or cargo and stretchers in and out, and it has got quite a low-level floor which means it has got a clean entrance for getting stuff in and off, quickly and safely. This is further aided by the tail being quite high, allowing the aircraft to come in aggressively without worrying about it hitting the ground, and is of further consideration when people are moving around the aircraft. Helicopters are dangerous, but this aircraft benefits from quite a lot of clearance.
Another aspect that can’t be underestimated is the noise and the low vibration levels on this military aircraft. Look at Afghanistan as an example, where crews are in in the air for multiple hours. It is very fatiguing if you are in a noisy vibrating environment, and that leads to mission degradation. Helicopters do vibrate, but this aircraft is very smooth, very quiet, and very capable.