The RAF’s latest Puma helicopter literally stepped into the spotlight as it deployed for the first time on operations in support of the NATO mission providing training and assistance to Afghan forces.
On a dark winter’s night, illuminated by runway lights, the first Puma HC Mark2 aircraft was loaded on to a single C17 transport aircraft at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire for the 3,608 mile journey to Kabul.
Its departure came just days before the MOD announced that the new Puma, and the RAF’s latest version of the Chinook, the Mark 6, were both ready for operational use.
The news came at an event at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, the home of Puma units 33 Squadron and 230 Squadron which will rotate through tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Puma pilot Squadron Leader Phil Williams said: “We flew the Puma Mk 2 out to RAF Brize Norton and within a matter of hours it was broken down ready to be loaded on to a C17 transport aircraft ready to be taken where it needs to go. On arrival in theatre it was unloaded and within four hours it was ready to be on task.
“That’s what makes Puma unique, if you want to get somewhere quickly and have an effect quickly this is the helicopter of choice for that. It can move up 16 troops or equipment, or a combination of the two, anywhere you want it to go and it’s got the flexibility to be re-rolled by the loadmaster in a matter of minutes”.
One man with aircrew experience on Merlin helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan Master Aircrew Gareth Attridge said that while the Puma Mk 2 might look the same from the outside, its new engines represented a step change in the helicopter’s capability.
He said: “The Puma Mk2 airframe is essentially the same as its predecessor, the main difference of the new version is that it has new Makila engines that enable it to fly much greater distances, operate better in hot and high conditions, and carry a larger amount of freight or troops. It also has improved fuel tanks that give the aircraft much longer range and endurance so we can go further, carry more, and work in more austere conditions.”
He said that another key feature of the improved version was a new digital glass cockpit, enhanced secure communications suite, and improved ballistic protection all of which made it safer for its crew and passengers.
One man who knows more than most about Pumas is Squadron Leader Chris Burgon, with 2,500 flying hours on the helicopter, including a total of seven operational tours of Iraq and Northern Ireland.
He said: “I thoroughly enjoy flying the Puma, I wouldn’t swap it for any helicopter in the world.
The Mark 2 has significantly more powerful engines which have anticipators, a key safety feature, so that when pilot demands power using the throttle he gets it instantly and more of it. It also has a completely modernised glass cockpit which allows us to have a head-up digital display that gives the pilot far better situational awareness. ”
Sqn Ldr Burgon said the Puma Mk2’s increased capability enabled the RAF to realistically replicate operational conditions anywhere in the world, whereas in recent conflicts while its predecessor could carry a full payload in cold and damp Britain, that capacity could be halved in the heat and dust of Iraq or Afghanistan.
In addition, a total of 14 Chinook Mk6 helicopters have been ordered to enhance the RAF’s existing heavy-lift helicopter capability, at a cost of almost £1 billion, which will bring the overall number of UK Chinooks to 60.
The MOD has recently signed a £150 million contract for the development and manufacture stages of the Chinook Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS) to provide improved handling qualities and aircraft stability across the other 46 aircraft in the Chinook fleet.
Officer Commanding Chinook Development Flight RAF Odiham Squadron Leader Adam Shave who has flown all variants of helicopter, except the earliest Mark 1, said that the DFACS on the Mark 6 was a major improvement
He said: “The real gem in the Chinook Mark 6 is the Digital Automatic Flight Control System. Being digital, pilots have greater control of the aircraft even at speeds as low as one knot, so that it is more stable in a hover, and can be set it up for approaches and landing in a hot and dusty environment in a very precise way.
“What that means to aircrew is that the risk associated with landing in those conditions is hugely reduced. The Mk 6 is far safer and the chances of damaging the aircraft are much reduced. Historically, at the height of the Afghan conflict a Chinook sustained damage once every 100 days often requiring it to be taken off operations for months for repair.
“I have personally been involved in situations where a Chinook’s wheels have been damaged during a landing on a dark night in Afghanistan and can say categorically that that would not have happened in the latest Mk 6.”
Air Vice Marshal Julian Young, Defence Equipment and Support Director of Helicopters, who served as an RAF engineering officer on both Chinook and Pumas squadrons from the mid-1980s said he could not have foreseen then that the Puma would still be in service now with vastly increased capabilities.
He said: ““When I was Senior Engineering Officer with 230 Squadron in 1992 at what was then RAF Gutersloh in Germany with the Puma HC-1 they were a tired looking aircraft and a bit underpowered. I couldn’t have imagined then that it would still being in service now with the capability it has. It’s got new engines with 35% more power and up to 25% greater fuel efficiency. It’s a brand new aircraft in an old shell and even the old shell has been worked on.”
“The Chinook Mk6 is now as good as it gets, it’s got a glass cockpit, a new fuselage, it looks very similar to the older variant I had on my first tour as a Junior Engineering Officer on 7 Squadron in 1985, but from an avionic and capability perspective there’s a generational gap between the two aircraft. It now has a digital cockpit, better engines, can lift more and has a digital flight control system that makes it much safer to fly in a degraded visual environment.”
Editor: Simon Mander
Photographs: Paul Crouch
AF Puma Mk2 loading onto a RAF C17 of 99 Sqn at night at RAF Brize Norton.
RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2015