It’s all change at the Belgian Air Force !
It’s at the aerial base of Coxyde (Koksijde in Dutch), a Dutch speaking commune located in the Flemish part of Belgium, that we find the 40ieth helicopter squadron of the Belgian Air Force.
AFTER 40 YEARS OF LOYAL SERVICE, THE SEA KING IS ABOUT TO ENTER RETIREMENT. A BIG STEP FOR THE BELGIAN AIR FORCE, WHICH HAS BEEN TESTING ITS REPLACEMENT, THE NH90, FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS ALREADY, ENABLING ITS PILOTS TO GET USED TO THE AIRCRAFT BEFORE IT OFFICIALLY BECOMES OPERATIONAL IN 2018.
The Sea King: a Belgian Icon
Specialised in SAR (Search and Rescue) and more specifically in maritime SAR missions, the squadron carries out for two different kinds of operations, the SAMAR (Sauvetage Aero MARitime), which includes naval missions and the SATER (Sauvetage Aero TERrestre) which concerns land-based missions. Kristof, the squadron Commander, explains that both the Sikorsky aircraft and the NH90 fly on a wide array of SAR missions: whether looking for people who have gone missing either on the coast or at sea, medical evacuation of injured or ill people on board of ships, organ transport in some cases, sanitary transport to hospitals and support during global emergencies. “Since 1976, we have carried out 3200 rescue operations, saving 1710 lives,” in flight engineer and winch operator Rudy Debergh proudly describes. This amounts to around 100 rescue operations on a yearly basis. “Before 1976, the SAR operations were carried out by a Sikorsky HSS only during day time. The Sea King changed all that and enabled us to fly on SAR missions just as much during the night than during the day, which meant we drastically increased our ability to rescue.”
Of late the base has only been using three Sea Kings for its different operations, which means that it keeps one extra aircraft as a spare part supplier to ensure the three above mentioned helicopters remain in good shape and operational.
“The Sea King is eay to maintain and we have the experience and the know how to maintain it appropriately. Previous designs like this type of aircraft require more maintenance from the user than from the manufacturer,” Kristof reveals.
The helicopter has become very well-known to the Belgian public since it was featured in the Windkracht 10 television programme, as well as in several films.
The helicopter’s star power has also led it to take part in several air shows. “An opportunity for us to present our dear old Sea King to the public,” Rudy adds. In 2010, the Belgian Air Force also gave one of the celebrity aircrafts to the museum of aviation in Brussels.
From the Sea King to the NH90
After 40 years of full service and more than 500000 combined flight hours, the Belgian Air Force is getting ready to replace the trusted aircraft. It therefore began testing then NH90 in 2014 with a view to replace the Sikorsky in 2018. There are three NH90 helicopters at Coxyde, the NH Industrie home base, with a fourth on the way, due to join the existing three towards the end of the year. “The decision to acquire the NH90 was both a political and a military one. Several helicopters had been considered, such as Agusta Westland’s EH101 and AB139 aircraft. The Sea Hawk /Black Hawk, Sikorsky’s S92 and other helicopters were also looked at. One of the key factors that convinced us to acquire the NH90 was its ability to fly in very cold weather conditions, which was not feasible with the Sea King and the way it was conceived.” The ability to withstand extreme weather conditions is crucial in the Coxyde region, as the winters tend to be very harsh. “We have a lot of snow and ice during the winter season. The technical progress offered by the NH90 is viewed as an asset and enables us to gain considerable preparation time,” says the Commander.
The Alouette III
The base is also a departure point for naval operations and the Alouette III is used on observation and surveillance missions. “We have been working with the Alouette III since the beginning of the 70s. The helicopter flies for the Navy and mostly on reconnaissance or anti-drug and anti-piracy missions.
Having said that, we also use the Alouette III on base camp for training purposes,” the Commander explains. Easy to use, thanks to uncomplicated technology and always available, the helicopter is well liked by the crews even if “the helicopter is slower and smaller than the other aircraft on base,” Kristof indicates. The three Alouettes currently used at Coxyde will retire in 2021. “The tireless machine” as the Commander describes the Alouette with a real dose of nostalgia will not be replaced as its tasks will be taken over by the NH90, just like the Sea King.
The squadron’s remit is to fly over the channel between England and the North East area of Europe. According to Rudy, it is one of the busiest passage ways for ships and hence the Air Force’s main area of activity. As it currently stands, the NH90 is flying on a mixture of SAR and training missions. The unit includes 18 pilots of which 9 are able to fly the new aircraft. Another crew batch is currently being trained on how to use the new twin-engine powered device. 40 years may separate the NH90 from its predecessor but the crew on board the new aircraft remains very similar to the one on the Sea King, and that is especially the case on SAR missions. Only the radar operator is no longer necessary. “He was an essential part of the crew: he had to guide the pilot to help him avoid obstacles such a ships in bad weather conditions,” Kristof says.
But his role has become redundant on the NH90 which is equipped with a 360° radar function. The data supplied by the radar is displayed in the cockpit and consulted by the pilots without the need for an intermediary. The NH90 is an 11 ton-class twin-engine European helicopter used for military transport. Equipped with two Turbomeca RTM322 engines, the aircraft boasts 1831 SHP (Shaft Horse Power) per engine, enabling it to reach a speed limit of 175 knots compared to its predecessor, which cannot raise above 120 knots. However Kristof acknowledges that the NH90 might be faster than the Sea King but that the latter takes less time on winching operations. Both winching systems are very similar and are operated the same way, although the control function has been totally redesigned, as Rudy indicates: “ On the NH90, the winching is controlled by an electronic panel whereas on the Sea King it is a an hydraulic valve. On the NH90, it is called a MCU (Mobile Control Unit) and you have to press a button situated on the left to control the lowering or the pulling up of the cable. It takes longer than the big handle used on the Sea King because the button you press is less precise.” Rudy admits that he prefers the hydraulic valve technique to the electronic one. “It takes time to get used to the control panel on the NH90 as well as getting to know the helicopter itself,” he smiles.
Training and safety
So as to carry out their missions as best as possible, the men of the squadron go on regular training courses, especially for emergency situations. “We receive regular training on how to evacuate the helicopter. Some of the courses use props such as a submerged cabin in a swimming pool, located in the Netherlands,” describes Karle Kinable, who pilots the NH90. In addition to these training courses, the crews also go on numerous test flights in the busiest intervention areas. “During a standard test flight, we fly towards the sea and then we radio the captain of a ship in the vicinity to ask for the authorisation to lower our diver towards the sea,” Karel adds. The squadron is in the process of training many new crew members to use the NH90. Next year the unit is planning to kick off a new set of operations, which involve landing on ships and helping them with their naval missions, especially anti-submarine warfare.
The NH90 is faster, better adapted to bad weather conditions and better suited to all the missions of the 40ieth squadron than its illustrious predecessor but that does not mean it won’t have to live up to the Sea King’s huge reputation.
The latter will bow out in 2018, leaving the Air Force to prepare for a new era, one of modernity.
The sea king
Since it first landed in Coxyde on November 1976, the Sea King never stopped flying on all sorts of missions, proving to be reliable even in some of the most difficult circumstances.
We have summarised some of the greatest moments of its long-standing and illustrious career:
• On May 16 1985, it transported Pope Jean Paul II: three Sea Kings were required for that particular task.
• On March 6 1987, it saved 28 people following the sinking of The Herald Free Entreprise near the port of Zeebrugge.
• On July 30 2004, it transported badly burnt victims following a gas explosion in Ghislenghien, Belgium.
• On December 5 2012, 7 people were saved following the collision of the Baltic Ace ship with another vessel off the coast of the Netherlands.
The Sea King and its crew have also regularly taken part in the “SAR meets” which take place all around Europe. The competitions involves different SAR teams across Europe who have to demonstrate their survival and navigation skills, among other things. We are pleased to report that the beloved Sea King and its crew often came away with the top prize.