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Serving maritime helicopters
Serving maritime helicopters

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Serving maritime helicopters

By Frédéric Lert

Copyright : F.Lert

The Cuers Pierrefeu facility, in the Var department, plays an essential role in the implementation of the French navy’s helicopters. It offers a wide range of expertise, from maintenance to the development of new equipment.

LOCATED IN THE BACK COUNTRY OF TOULON, THECUERS-PIERREFEU SPECIALIZED AVIATION WORKSHOP (AIA) IS BOTH HISTORIC AND A PARADOX. HISTORIC BECAUSE IT WAS FOUNDED AT THE DAWN OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR. A PARADOX BECAUSE ALTHOUGH OFFICIALLY IT REMAINS ADMINISTRATIVELY AFFILIATED TO THE FRENCH AIR FORCE, IT PRIMARILY SERVES THE AIRCRAFT OF THE FRENCH NAVY. “IN TERMS OF OUR MAINTENANCE ACTIVITIES, THE NAVY IS OUR MAIN CUSTOMER THROUGH THE SIMMAD1“, STATED CHRISTOPHE ALLÉON, PROJECT MANAGER FOR MARITIME HELICOPTERS. “HOWEVER, IN TERMS OF DESIGN AND MODERNIZATION ACTIVITIES, WE DEAL DIRECTLY WITH THE DGA2“.

Since opening, the Cuers facility has specialized in radar radomes and has designed and manufactured those equipped on French fighter jets, from the Mirage IIIC to the Rafale. Its expertise has also been applied to the design of all Airbus radomes, with the exception of the A350. This activity was made possible by setting up a major design office, which sets the Cuers facility apart from other aviation workshops. Over 110 engineers and technicians work on the design activities. “We design and develop equipment and modifications,” stated Christophe Alléon. “The advantage of our facility is that we can also carry out the modifications on the aircraft that we receive during the periods of scheduled level-2 or level-3 maintenance”.

Helicopters are an essential part of the activity at the Cuers facility, which receives all of the French Navy’s aircraft, except for the Alouette 3 (see inset). Lynx, Panther, Dauphin and NH90 Caiman3 are a few of the powerful beasts that are cared for at this facility. However, since 2015 the facility lost some of its diversity as the Puma belonging to the French Air Force and Army are no longer serviced at Cuers.

The Maritime Helicopter division groups together activities devoted to the Panther, Dauphin Pedro and Service Public, as well as the Lynx: a team of 125 people are assigned to a total of 11 work platforms. All of which have been very busy in early 2017. The Lynx take up five of these platforms which are reserved for them. The aircraft having played a major role in the heyday of anti-surface operations have had a very drawn out goodbye. According to several reports, the decommissioning date is currently set at 2022, but an extension cannot be ruled out. The year 2026 has occasionally been mentioned… The situation is quite tricky in terms of the engines, as the replacement of certain components has become rather problematic. However the Navy deems the aircraft sufficiently important to continue to invest in the modernization of at least nine aircraft. This modernization, assigned to the Cuers facility, concerns the integration of around 30 pieces of machinery in two parts: the first applies to the avionics in particular to bring the aircraft in line with ICAO standards. The aircraft will therefore receive V/UHF Saturn radios at 8.33 kHz, a HF SSB radio (very long range) and a PR4G tactical radio. They will be equipped with civil GPS for navigation support and a distress beacon (COSPAS/SARSAT). The second part focuses on increasing tactical capabilities with the implementation of the lightweight MU90 torpedo as well as a new tactical console featuring a modern display for digital mapping, AIS information and the FLIR turret, which have already been installed on the aircraft. Collected information may be transmitted by data link and even recorded to be replayed during the mission or even used as proof for legal proceedings.

Six consoles will be built. Considered as optional equipment, they may be fitted in line with the needs of the nine aircraft modified to receive them. Two crew members in the front will also be equipped with a tactical tablet for mission management. This tablet is currently being developed by the workshop’s design office to ensure its compatibility, both electronically and vibratory, within the helicopter’s environment and its possible use with night vision devices. The aircraft will also be adapted to receive the assisted weaponry support developed by the workshop (see inset). Trial runs will take place in the second quarter of 2017. “A Lynx, serving as a prototype, has already been completed”, stated Christophe Alléon. Four others are undergoing transformation and will be delivered before the end of the year. The last four will follow in 2018″. The work has been complicated by the presence of asbestos in certain parts. When these parts need to be handled, they are placed under a tent with an operator equipped with a special suit and respirator. They are then replaced by asbestos-free parts. The Lynx share their lair with the Panther, which are gradually being updated to standard 2. A standard developed by Airbus Helicopters (except for the tactical console developed by Cuers), the workshop is then responsible for industrialization and serial production. At the time of publication, 15 aircraft will have been delivered. The sixteenth and last in the series will be ready in the second half of 2017. “The transition to standard 2 was initially supposed to be outsourced. However, given the problems that it posed, in the end it was once again placed in our hands”, stated the weapons engineer, head of the maritime helicopter division. “We had to fit in this major workload, which pushed back our traditional maintenance activities on Panther and Dauphin. An even greater problem since today the Panther helicopters are used on a very steady basis: instead of the usual 25 flight hours per month and per aircraft, we are currently seeing around 30 or 40 hours. This upsurge is the result of numerous missions in which the units are engaged: the fight against drug trafficking, clandestine immigration, maritime piracy, etc.” It should also be noted that the workshop’s teams may also intervene on site for foreign fleets. For example, Dauphin and Panther in Bangladesh, Kenya and Israel have benefited from the workshop’s expertise in recent years. Cuers also caters to the NH90. The facility’s most recent hangar is equipped to handle six NHI at the same time. The facility performs intermediate inspection (600 hours or two years of use), lasting around 8 months, with technical teams taking charge of the aircraft from A to Z. With over 1,200 flight hours, the Navy’s Caiman has clocked up the most use and is already at its second intermediate inspection. With its FRA21 accreditation, the facility is able to design its own repair solutions in addition to those recommended by the manufacturer. Each aircraft completes its stay at Cuers with fixed points and test flights. A process that takes place over two to three weeks and that is conducted by a pilot and investigator flying the trials, both of whom work for the facility.

Upgrading the Alouette 3

The Cuers workshop will design and develop the upgrade to the latest Alouette 3 SA-319B in service in France. The objective is to allow the helicopter to last in good conditions until 2026, the estimated date of its decommissioning. If this date is pushed back, it could be possible that these helicopters may still be in service 70 years after the first prototype flight – back in 1959! The modernization program has been in place since 2010 in order to comply with the ICAO requirements in terms of air traffic. However, delays have occurred due to the current moratorium in place until the end of 2018. With the end of the moratorium in sight, the Navy currently has its back against the wall. The bulk of the upcoming work will therefore focus on installing an 8.33 kHz radio and a mode S transponder. The Alouette will also receive a touchscreen GPS integrated into the dashboard. The prototype featuring the modifications is expected by the end of 2018 and 13 aircraft will ultimately be modified.

Assisted weaponry support for helicopters

The installation of heavy caliber weaponry on helicopters led the workshop to design specific support adaptable to a wide range of aircraft. The assisted weaponry support is compatible with PGM and Barrett precision rifles, MAG58 machine guns and even the Dillon Gatling M134D. Small series production is currently underway by the Cuers workshop. Around 15 items of equipment have been provided to French users of the NH90 for use in Mali (on Army aircraft) or at sea, for the Navy’s maritime aircraft on frigates. The workshop is currently in the process of developing an adaptation of the assisted weaponry support for the Panther and the EC145, as these two aircraft are used in the fight against drug trafficking and anti-terrorism missions.

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