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Dec 09, 2011

Inside the Air Force’s Free State helicopter hub

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The South African Air Force (SAAF) has, according to published sources, a fleet of about 90 helicopters. In terms of types, these are the Denel Oryx transport helicopter (the most numerous type), the Denel Rooivalk attack helicopter, the AgustaWestland A109 light utility helicopter, the AgustaWestland Lynx maritime helicopter and the Eurocopter (formerly MBB) BK117 light utility helicopter.

These helicopters are in action all the time, searching for and rescuing people, fighting fires, supporting the police and other authorities and helping protect and police the country’s borders. All this in addition to operations in support of peacekeeping forces elsewhere in Africa and antipiracy missions in the Mozambique channel from the decks of the South African Navy’s ships.

Operationally, the SAAF’s helicopters are assigned to five squadrons and one helicopter flying school, which are scattered the length and breadth of the country, to provide the maximum geographical coverage. Located roughly in the centre of the country, in Bloemfontein, in the Free State province, is the heart of the SAAF’s helicopter force, only base with more than one helicopter unit assigned to it – Air Force Base (AFB) Bloemspruit.

Baseline
“We are the helicopter base,” affirms AFB Bloemspruit Officer Commanding (OC) Colonel Chris Opperman. “Our area of responsibility is the whole of the Free State and also the Northern Cape. It’s quite a big area we’re responsible for, operations-wise, and for [SAAF] flying activities in this area.” With roughly 800 personnel, the base hosts two regular flying units, as well as a number of specialist ground units, and is responsible for the administration and control of satellite facilities.

The regular flying units are 16 Squadron (Sqn) and 87 Helicopter Flying School (HFS). (The base also supports two reserve flying units, 106 and 107 Sqns.) The ground units include 6 Air Servicing Unit (ASU), the Helicopter Training Centre and 506 Sqn, which is the base’s security force, or force protection, unit. Satellite facilities subordinated to Bloemspruit are the Vastrap firing range, north of Upington, and the De Wet target range outside Bloemfontein. “The base’s main function is to support these squadrons and units with accommodation, stores, operations, security and all human resources functions,” sums up Opperman.

One of the newest, smallest, but most modern and important units on the base is the Helicopter Training Centre. This is totally separate from 87 HFS and, not being a squadron or a school, is headed by an officer in charge, not an OC.

That officer in charge is Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Reynolds. “We provide a computer-based training service. The programmes we run at the moment are for the Rooivalk and A109 – both air crew and ground crew training. We will add training programmes for the Oryx in the future. We provide systems training to support the conversion course on to the Rooivalk and to support the initial A109 training for pilots, as well as for the ground crew.” All air and ground crew assigned to the A109 and Rooivalk attend the Helicopter Training Centre before being assigned to 87 HFS and 16 Sqn respectively.

The centre was originally set up as part of the Rooivalk programme and later expanded to include the A109 – this expansion being literal, as it involved the physical extension of the building. “The current building will be able to accommodate Oryx training if it is computer-based, but if a simulator is desired, we will have to extend it again,” he reports. The centre has three classrooms – one for the Rooivalk and two for the A109 – an auditorium that can also serve as a conference room, a part-task trainer for the Rooivalk and a cockpit procedures trainer for the A109.

The total staff complement is five, including the officer in charge; the other four are two SAAF technical instructors and two civilian contractors. “We don’t even have a secretary,” observes Reynolds.

The three classrooms are all fitted with twin monitor screens on each desk. In the Rooivalk classroom, one screen displays the theoretical aspect of what is being taught, while the other screen shows schematics, diagrams, animations, video material and anything else that supplements the theoretical text on the first screen. This system was set up locally in a cooperative development between the SAAF and Denel Aviation.

In the A109 classrooms, things are a little different, as the system used there was developed by AgustaWestland and originally designed to use only one screen per desk. As a result, the second screen in these rooms displays information that is supplementary to the information shown on the main screen.

In the three classrooms, the training courses are modular and so formatted that the trainees follow set curricula in a set order, but in their own time. For example, at the end of each A109 lesson, the trainee is presented with a questionnaire that must be filled in before he or she can go on to the next lesson. These classrooms and their systems are used to train both air crew and ground crew.

The Rooivalk part-task trainer and the A109 cockpit procedures trainer are for air crew only. These look like, but are not, flight simulators and are both motionless. The part-task trainer, developed by Denel and two other local companies, QTT and 5th Dimension Technologies, is to help develop the manual dexterity of future Rooivalk air crew. This is also referred to as Hands-on-Collective-and-Stick training (the collective is a second control stick, unique to helicopters) and is intended to achieve the situation in which the air crew can reach and operate controls, including buttons, without looking at them.

The A109 cockpit procedures trainer was supplied by AgustaWestland and has a field of view of 140˚ by 40˚. It serves to drill trainees in the correct procedures to be used in the cockpit. It can be used in three modes – self-training (trainee only), one-on-one training (with the instructor in the ‘cockpit’ alongside the trainee) and two-on-one training, with a second instructor in the control room, creating problems (like systems failures) for the trainee to solve using the requisite procedures.

The auditorium is used for briefings and debriefings, and is available not only to the entire base but to nearby South African Army units as well. It has a very big screen with high-definition video capability, and the centre has its own in-house video-editing capability. It can also serve, to a limited degree, as research and development laboratory. “We want to move from being a systems training centre to a tactical training centre, and so benefit the entire SAAF,” says Reynolds.


Flying Teachers
All SAAF pilots win their wings at the Central Flying School at AFB Langebaanweg, in the Western Cape. Those streamed for helicopters are then sent to Starlite Aviation for a heli- copter conversion course, which is done on Robinson R22 two-seat piston-engined helicopters, following a private pilot’s licence syllabus. Their time at Starlite concludes with ten hours flying instruction on a Bell JetRanger to give them some experience of a turbine- engined helicopter.

Then they are posted to 87 HFS, which has the very appropriate motto: Docemus (We teach). But it is not only a training unit. “We have two very definite roles,” explains 87 HFS OC Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Steyn. “Our main role is to do all the helicopter training for the SAAF. The only helicopter training we don’t do is the task-specific training on the Rooivalk and Lynx. Our second role: we have an operational role, similar to that of all the operation helicopter squadrons. Our instructors must fly operational missions as well as training missions. Our area of responsibility is the whole of the Free State, most of the Northern Cape and the northernmost part of the Eastern Cape. It’s quite a large area but not a populous area, so demand is not as great as in other provinces. But I’m very proud to say we’ve flown almost the same number of operational hours as the operational squadrons, as well as our purely training flying. This combination of two roles makes this unit the busiest helicopter unit in the Air Force. Our people are doing a very good job.” It fulfils this multiplicity of missions with a complement of six Oryx and nine A109s.

Until this year, the incoming trainee pilots were all assigned to the Oryx to qualify as copilots on the SAAF’s workhorse heli- copter. Once qualified as copilots, they would be assigned to operational squadrons and fly operationally as copilots. This year, for the first time, as an experiment, the incoming group of trainee pilots was split in half, with one half following the traditional programme on the Oryx and the other half being trained on the smaller and lighter A109. The intent is to see if it is better to use the A109 for training, followed by a conversion course on the Oryx and assignment, as before, to operational squadrons as Oryx copilots.

It should be noted that training on the A109 followed by conversion to the Oryx is not directly cheaper than training just on the Oryx. But the new approach does offer significant benefits. The Oryx needs to be serviced after every 20 flying hours, whereas the servicing interval for the A109 is every 100 hours. In addition, the Oryx is in greater operational demand than the A109, with the result that operations can interfere with Oryx training missions. Further, later in their careers, when the pilots come back to 87 HHFS to do the aircraft commander’s course on the A109, those who originally trained on this heli- copter would only need to do a refresher course, whereas those trained on the Oryx would need to do a full conversion course – and a refresher course is cheaper than a conversion course.

“The outcome of the experiment so far is very successful, very positive,” reveals Steyn. “We will investigate this further and probably implement this system. But we do not yet have enough evidence to make a final decision.”

But this is only part of 87 HFS’s training role. After serving for some years as Oryx copilots on operational squadrons, the young helicopter pilots return to Bloemspruit for the A109 operational commander course. They convert to (or, in the future, do a refresher course on) the A109 and then learn to become mission commanders. After qualifying, they again return to the operational squadrons, this time to fly A109s.

Further, the unit runs the helicopter instructor’s courses first on the Oryx and then on the A109. In the future, however, it is planned to switch this around, with instructor training starting on the A109 and then progressing to the Oryx, again because of the much lower servicing intervals and greater operational demand for the latter.

“We also train all helicopter flight engineers here, on both the A109 and Oryx, from basic level until they get their wings. We have flight engineer instructor’s courses as well,” he adds. “In between these, we do refresher courses for all types of air crew on an ad hoc basis, as the requirements arise. We do some technical training, qualifying apprentices, both avionics and mechanical.” The unit is also responsible for all night vision goggles (NVGs) training for helicopters in the SAAF – for copilots, pilots, flight engineers, pilot instructors and flight engineer instructors.

The A109 is one of the newest and most modern aircraft in the SAAF. “The biggest change with the A109 is the shift from analogue to digital flying displays. This is a big difference,” says Steyn. “From a technical point of view, the whole approach is totally different to our other helicopter types. After flights, data is downloaded from the in-flight computers for analysis. This is totally new for us. No longer do we just do mechanical checks. The A109 has a forward-looking infrared (Flir) and a Nitesun SX-16 spotlight which are also new to us and need specific training.”

The A109 is not yet being fully used as an operational platform because operational test and evaluation (OT&E) is still being done on the Flir. Currently, the light utility helicopter is being used operationally, mainly as a command and control platform – for example, in support of the police, and/or assisting Oryx helicopters to land at the exact desired spot to deploy troops or police. In the future, thanks to its Flir and spotlight, the A109 is likely to specialise in night operations and be deployed along the country’s borders.


Attack!
With its symbol of a red bull’s head and its Zulu motto: Hlaselani (attack), 16 Sqn was an appropriate choice to be the sole unit to operate the Denel Rooivalk (Kestrel) attack – or, as the SAAF officially terms it, combat support – helicopter. The unit, originally raised in 1939 as a bomber unit, later (1968) became a helicopter squadron and operated a gunship version of the Aérospatiale Alouette III, fitted with a door-mounted, sideways-firing 20 mm cannon (a concept originally developed by the Portuguese Air Force).

In 1999, 16 Sqn was reformed for the Rooivalk programme, with the task of undertaking OT&E on the South African-designed and -built helicopter, a task that is finally coming to an end. “This year is effectively the final year of OT&E: by the end of the year, we hope to deliver the aircraft to the SAAF helicopter fraternity as an operational heli- copter,” affirms 16 Sqn OC Lieutenant-Colonel Robbie Buys. “This is the culmination of 11 to 12 years of work. Obviously, it’s been a long and difficult process due to financial constraints and the stop-go nature of the programme. But now it’s go! And we’re looking forward to it. We trust that from next year we’ll be operational – and then the real hard work will start. We’ll have to prove our worth to the [South African National Defence Force] and show we can deploy. Our ability to deploy [into the field] will determine our future.”

The squadron currently operates five Rooivalk Mk 1 aircraft, which is the first truly operational standard of the aircraft; another six Rooivalks are being upgraded to Mk 1 standard by Denel Aviation and will be delivered to 16 Sqn in the near future. (For information on the development of the Rooivalk, see Engineering News May 20, 2011.) “We are a small unit, but we represent a new capability and can maintain that capability until such time as it might need to be expanded,” he assures.

What is new about the Rooivalk is not that it is armed; what is new is its combination of sensors and weapons. “Our biggest worth lies in our Main Sight System (MSS), which allows us to observe, day and night, without being observed,” highlights Buys. “The MSS has thermal and normal cameras and this capability makes the helicopter much more versatile. The MSS is the heart of the aircraft. The Rooivalk is also fitted with electronic warfare (EW) sensors to protect us against surface-to-air threats.”

However, the helicopter currently lacks an integrated Pilot Night Vision System (PNVS). Such a system would incorporate all aspects of thermal vision and NVG systems and “would be nice”. The Rooivalk is, however, fitted for a PNVS, so it could be installed later.

In terms of weapons, at the moment, the helicopter is armed with a 20 mm cannon in an undernose turret, and unguided rockets carried in pods under the aircraft’s stub wings. “But we need a guided weapon – the [Denel Dynamics] Mokopa [missile] – to bring the aircraft to its full potential. We need it specifically for peace support operations. It’s a ‘must have’ to reduce collateral damage,” he asserts. “We’re urging the acquisition of the Mokopa. I do believe we’ll get it. Our doctrine and tactics are based around it.”

One day, the Rooivalk might also be fitted with air-to-air missiles – again, the helicopter can take such weapons. “We’d like to expand the Rooivalk’s capabilities to the fullest and keep pace with technology. This is going to be a challenge – to keep the capability.”

The squadron will start its operational work-up next year. The process will focus on conventional war and peace support oper-ations. Conventional operations form the foundation for all operations, and “United Nations forces have used attack helicopters on combat missions in Africa in recent years”, points out Buys. Squadron activities next year could take the form of a three-month work-up, a three-month deployment and a three-month relaxation period, followed by a resumption of the cycle.

“We’re planning a major exercise for next year to start working closely with army units, especially 1 Tank Regiment, 1 Special Service [armoured car] Battalion and 44 Parachute Regiment,” he states. “We’re also looking at having an EW camp to integrate doctrine and tactics and combine them with fighter squadron doctrine and tactics. The ideal is to combine forces, but to use the most appropriate force for each objective.”

This is not being done in isolation – 16 Sqn has an exchange programme with the French Army’s attack helicopter force, equipped with the Eurocopter Tiger. These units have seen action in Afghanistan and Libya. “These are short-term exchanges – we exchange information and experiences. It has been very valuable,” reports Buys. “We get along very well with the French. They also have limited resources – although more than we have. They also developed their own attack helicopter and its development has also taken a long time – as long as the Rooivalk.”

The French operate their Tigers in conjunction with light utility helicopters (Aérospatiale Gazelles) and, as a result of their interchanges, the SAAF is looking at doing the same. This would require arming some of the A109s and training their crew appropriately. But it would increase the reach, capabilities and flexibility of 16 Sqn.


Keeping Them Flying

The aircraft may get the attention, but without the tender loving care of the personnel of 6 ASU, they would not be able to keep flying for long. “Our core business is to do aircraft servicing – mainly the intermediate level of servicing,” explains 6 ASU OC Lieutenant-Colonel François Rossouw. “We’re between the squadron and the manufacturer. We do everything with regard to helicopters. We cover the Oryx, the A109, the Rooivalk and the BK117 (based at Air Force Station [AFS] Port Elizabeth), and we are involved with nondestructive testing on the Lynx.”

The unit has 142 staff, both SAAF and civilian, including aircraft mechanics, avionics technicians, weapons systems technicians, nondestructive testing specialists, specialists in composites, aircraft spray painters, fitters and turners, and aircraft welders, as well as sheet metal workers. There are also Denel employees permanently based with 6 ASU.

“We do all servicing on all helicopters in the SAAF,” he stresses. “We can send teams to any base to support the helicopters there. The moment you need a 400-hour service, or an airframe service, or an engine service, we do it.” A 400-hour service takes about three months to do and requires a team of six.

The unit has dedicated workshops for aircraft spraypainting, aircraft sheet metal work, aircraft welding, carpentry, fitting and turning and aircraft composites. It also does intermediate-level avionics maintenance, although depot-level avionics maintenance is done by 5 ASU at AFB Waterkloof (just south of Pretoria). On the avionics side, 6 ASU has aircraft instruments, aircraft electrical (including aircraft batteries) and aircraft radio and radar workshops, covering all the helicopter types operated by the SAAF.

“We are saving the taxpayer quite a lot of money by doing this servicing ourselves. An outside contractor would ask R22-million for a 400-hour service. We do not cost nearly as much,” highlights Rossouw.

Helicopter deployments and courses are also supported by 6 ASU. For example, it has been maintaining A109s based at AFS Durban, rotating teams there every two weeks for the past year.
“We are also responsible for all aircraft recoveries – fixed wing as well as helicopter – in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal,” he points out. “Further, we train apprentices. We’re training 45 at the moment, including eight from Rwanda, two from Lesotho and one from the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) – all Air Force people.”

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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