Has the NH90 programme finally turned the corner?

If a camel is a horse designed by committee then the NH90 medium helicopter must be a development programme drafted in a lunatic asylum.

While the eventual establishment of six production sites must have been politically expedient in the early days of the programme’s inception, the creation of so many different variants of the aircraft – at the last count standing at 26 across the 13 customers – has undoubtedly hamstrung the NH90’s smooth entry into service.

Progress is being made, however, as I witnessed last week on a visit to Buckeburg Air Base in Germany during the annual NH90 User Conference.

NH90

A delivery ceremony of a NH90 TTH to the Belgian Armed Forces during the conference marked the 200th NH90 delivery, while the entire fleet has now flown 50,000 flight hours, including on operations in Afghanistan with Italy and Germany.

The well-reported teething problems across the various nations – floors that warped, engine issues, an inconsistent supply chain, problems with the aircraft’s digital map, corrosion issues (see below) – have now largely been overcome. Indeed, with a few exceptions (I’m talking about you here Norway) all aircraft being rolled off the production lines are in full operating configuration.

In addition, Germany now has some solid experience operating four of the aircraft in the forward medevac role from Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, as Lt Col Kai Eggert explained to us during the user conference.

Many of the features that were originally derided as simply being ‘technology for technology’s sake’, such as the aircraft’s fly-by-wire system, are now regarded as the most valued on the NH90.

‘We were pretty convinced and actually even surprised that the high amount of support that the aircraft provides to the pilot… The fly-by-wire system with the automatic flight controls was very reliable and supported us to the most possible extent. Coming from the UH-1s, which is a very old, basic system, and the step towards the NH90 was quite a large one. The fly-by-wire helped us achieve this big challenge,’ Eggert explained.

Not that the deployment hasn’t been without its hiccups. The NH90’s digital moving map required an upgrade in theatre in order for it to work properly while there were also issues with the aircraft’s environmental control system.

With Germany deploying the aircraft earlier than some helicopter chiefs were probably comfortable with due to political pressure, it’s hardly surprising that such niggling issues were discovered in theatre. Indeed, Eggert was complimentary about the response from NHIndustries in coming up with a solution for each.

So after hearing the evidence of one outwardly satisfied customer can we confidently say that the NH90 programme has turned a corner, especially as the number of deployments and flight hours flown begin to outweigh the number of outstanding issues?

Corrosion issues remain a problem and on 27 June the Dutch MoD announced that it had asked the NATO Helicopter Management Agency (NAHEMA) to suspend further deliveries due to the excessive levels of corrosion, and wear and tear on two of its NFH airframes.

Dutch NH90

One is a Meaningful Operational Capability (MOC) aircraft, which was deployed off the coast of Somalia in early 2013, while the other is a Full Operational Capability (FOC) version which operated in the Caribbean during late 2013. Each of these aircraft flew approximately 250 hours in saline conditions.

Reports of severe corrosion issues with the NH90 started to emerge in mid-March. The Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory NLR investigated the causes of the corrosion problems and its findings were published in late June.

Much of the corrosion occurred due to prevention of galvanic coupling, meaning the coupling of metals to carbon fiber reinforced composites, not being taken into account in the design of the helicopter with other causes including an absence of sealant or ill-applied sealant according to the NLR’s report.

A total of 92 corrosion occurrences were reported, which were classified as being caused due to: insufficient corrosion protection; incorrect materials selection; incorrect design; and incorrect manufacturing.

When informed about the corrosion issues in March, NHI established a task force which is expected to present a roadmap in September on how to remedy the current string of problems while preventing further occurrence of corrosion issues.

One more positive development that was announced during the user conference was the move towards one standard baseline that will be offered to future customers, with the current negotiations with Qatar for 22 NH90s acting as a test case for this.

NHI will now offer one baseline aircraft alongside a range of optional extras, allowing customers to cherry-pick capabilities – from a basic to more complex configuration – but with the supporting architecture based on the same standard.

‘For new customers we propose a unique and flexible configuration of the NH90 – what makes it flexible is that you can go from a configuration where you don’t plug in all optional equipment up to a more complex configuration – but it will be based on a single basis,’ NH Industries president Vincent Dubrule said.

NHI is also looking at the future upgrades required to keep the type current. These include increasing the operational availability of the fleet, the introduction of new datalinks, new communication systems to handle ever increasing amounts of information and a ‘strong request’ from several nations for an enhanced EO/IR sensor.

While the provision of a ready upgrade path should of course be applauded, it’s depressing to think that it may take a relatively major upgrade programme to switch the NH90’s EO/IR pod for something more modern.

Given the heritage of the programme it was certainly well beyond the scope of the original requirements to make the aircraft’s electronic architecture open and modular.

But with future sales prospects of the aircraft somewhat limited, at least in the near to medium term, this lack of flexibility on such a complex aircraft may prove to be a major stumbling block for NHI salespeople.

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