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A top-class interim – Vertical Mag

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 consists of Airbus Dauphin N3s, intended to operate from ships at sea. The other part of the fleet consists of six H160 helicopters that operate from land. These helicopters, tasked with rescue and intervention missions at sea, are used by the 32F fleet.

The aircraft is decorated in military colors and equipped with a winch, a Euroflir 410 electro-optical system (FLIR) and night vision goggles (NVG) and can carry out military missions. However, they operate under a civil registry and do not carry weapons or military radios.

Although purely a 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 September 22, 2022, to begin its military experiments and ‘maritime’ certification. At the same time, the first crews of the 32F flotilla were trained.

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

“We had a year to set up the fleet, train the crews and open a first SAR (search-and-rescue) detachment in Cherbourg,” said Commander Sébastien Bayet. “In just under twelve months we have gone from one aircraft and a trained crew 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 enormously was the unique and well-known main mission: search and rescue at sea. That’s why we’re not starting from scratch.”

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

The 32F started in 2023 with experienced captains who demonstrated good knowledge of sea rescue work. It was mainly about guaranteeing flight safety and optimizing training time. Things were relatively simple as the task was “merely” training the experienced pilots on their new helicopter.

Recruitment began to evolve in late 2023 and the fleet is now receiving freshly qualified young pilots. As copilots assigned 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 trained on H160 and we are now receiving young guys who qualify in any specialty by following programs that we have defined ourselves.”

The Airbus H160 aircraft, dressed in military colors and equipped with a winch, a Euroflir 410 electro-optical system (FLIR) and night vision goggles (NVG), can carry out military public service missions. Anthony Pecchi photo

Essential FLIR

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

“A canvass was launched in the fleet and because I already had good experience with SAR missions in Cayman, I was selected,” she said. “Because the H160 was smaller than the Cayman, we had to adjust the equipment and size of our bags. But the H160 still remains large and can carry a crew of six on a rescue mission: two pilots, a winch operator, a diver, a doctor and a nurse. And we can also install medical equipment, including a stretcher.”

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

Procedures are standardized per aircraft, but technicalities ensure that rescue divers only perform maintenance on the helicopters in their assigned fleet. In the cabin of the H160, the winch operator has a work station with a screen that allows him to control the FLIR, which is mainly used from this seat. However, the FLIR can also be controlled by the co-pilot in the left seat of the cockpit.

“We work as a team with the pilots,” Vanessa said. “They give us geographic coordinates or tell us an azimuth and a distance and we use this information to find the target. The use of this powerful FLIR represents valuable assistance in rescue missions and we continually train with this equipment. If we don’t have that, we lose our efficiency, and the slightest overflight over sea is used to master it.”

The H160 cabin can essentially be configured in three ways: cargo, rescue (including an additional waterproof floor to prevent the infiltration of salt water 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-style cameras, which are automatically activated when the aircraft is switched on. One is placed in the cockpit, another at the top of the fin, a third on the lifting hook and the last on the winch. The images are used to analyze the flights and possible incidents. They also provide exceptional testimonies of rescue missions at sea.

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

Deck landing operations

The daily activity relies on a strong technical echelon of approximately 30 technicians chosen for their experience. By making intensive use of the H160s of the interim fleet, the French Navy is playing a role in “de-risking” the H160M program. Military administrators benefit from the support of a few civilian technicians grouped 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 various detachments.

As a result, with sufficient support, flight hours are increasing rapidly and have already exceeded the 1,000 mark by 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 flying hours of the global H160 fleet. Maturity occurs gradually as we use the helicopter, because in a sense we are (the) forerunners.”

For example, the fleet opened the deck landing operation at sea with the H160. On the other hand, putting a full-size detachment on a boat is not on the agenda. Whether refueling the helicopter at sea as part of a remote rescue or a medical evacuation, deck landing is a scenario that the Cherbourg detachment has already experienced during a real intervention.

“During the evacuation of a casualty from an oil tanker transiting the canal, the captain chose to land directly on the boat rather than hoist the patient due to operational efficiency,” Bayet said. “All our captains are qualified for deck landing, which is validated by a test. Once again, the fact that the fleet started operations with very experienced pilots helped us enormously. This qualification is not mandatory for the co-pilot, but if it is, so much the better.”

The flying hours for the Airbus H160s are increasing rapidly and will have already exceeded the 1,000 mark by the end of November 2023. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Efficient rotor

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

With six people on board – four crew members, a doctor and a nurse – the aircraft maintains enough power to take off with a full tank (1.1 tons or 2,425 lb), which is very noticeable. With an average consumption of approximately 300 kg (660 lb) per hour, it offers approximately 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, albeit with a smaller cabin, but at much lower operating costs. The hold at the rear of the fuselage can also carry up to 300 kg (660 lb) of equipment, but it is not accessible during flight.

A disadvantage of the helicopter, related to its civilian origins, is the lack of a fuel dump system. As a result, pilots must plan ahead to ensure that crews are not recovering too many people during a rescue mission without having time to burn fuel to lighten their loads.

Of course, working at sea level and currently in Brittany, France, where temperatures are rarely scorching, makes life easier for everyone. Although the heat is not excessive, storms occur regularly. 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 operates a single helicopter operated by two crews who take turns working in 15-day shifts to ensure 24/7 alertness. Anthony Pecchi photo

The LanveOK-Poulmic Naval Base

The Lanvéoc-Poulmic naval base hosts the fleet headquarters and main operation. Three detachments under the command of the fleet complete the picture. The Cherbourg detachment has been autonomous since July 2023, when the H160 replaced an NH90 Cayman. The second detachment was created in December 2023 and stationed in Lanvéoc, close to the fleet, and the third was opened in Hyères in southern France.

Each detachment operates a single helicopter operated by two crews who take turns working in 15-day shifts to ensure 24/7 alertness. Each crew consists of two pilots, a rescue diver who is also a technician, and a hoist operator. Two technicians are associated with each team to ensure online maintenance on the ground. The crew is completely autonomous in their premises (meals, administrative tasks, etc.), which have living and rest areas.