Airborne Fisheries Intervention

Pacific Operations > Airborne Fisheries Intervention

Maritime Helicopters

Vessels within 160 nautical miles of the coast are just within the range (max about 450 nautical miles) of twin engine light to medium helicopters (including search time, boarding hover time and reserves) such as:

 the Westland Lynx, is not currently in production but a new "Future Lynx" is under development by Agusta-Westland.

the Agusta A109M (known to the US Coastguard as the MH-68A) or

the EC 145 (the successor of the Bo-105 which is a very popular air ambulance helicopter).

In two hours of fleeing the vessel may gain another 40 nautical miles. Thus unless the fleeing vessel is within 120 nautical miles of the coast and the boarding party can get aboard the fully fueled helicopter and set off within one hour then the vessel will be outside the safe radius of action of a light helicopter.

Light helicopters cost more or less depending upon the systems they carry. A base price is around US$7 million per unit but a fully equipped anti-submarine helicopter could cost over US$30 million per unit.

Currently New Zealand's No.3 Squadron operates five Kaman Seasprites. These are naval helicopters with good range, and an excellent sensor suite. Unusually they have also been adapted to carry the heavy air-to-surface Maverick missile usually used by strike jets. These aircraft compare well with the Lynx and outclass the A109M and ESC 635. Their main drawback is parts due to the relative rareness of this helicopter in world markets.

The SH-70 Seahawk ( made famous in 'A Perfect Storm') is a larger machine with room for 12 on board. The flight radius of the Seahawk S-70 can be extended by mid-air refueling although the aircraft to do this are very expensive. Pentagon 2006 appropriations for the Seahawk average at $44 million per unit as part of a larger programme but this is an ASW helicopter and the electronics on such machines are expensive.

A more recent addition to the Blackhawk range is the MH-60S Knighthawk. The MH-60S Knighthawk is the US Navy's newest blackhawk variant, built to carry out missions such as vertical replenishment, combat search and rescue, special warfare support and airborne mine countermeasures. The Navy will buy 237 of them. 2007 appropriations show a unit cost of US$26 million.

The Knighthawk can carry the Extenal Stores System which is a set of wings to carry two 230 gallon or two 450 gallon external fuel tanks. These can increase the ferry range of the helicopter to 880 nautical miles or 1200 nautical miles respectively. The system can also carry weapons.

The original Blackhawk design (long and low) required that it be c-130 transportable with minimal adaption. This has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that crew must remain stooped over while operating in the aircraft. This was considered so important the Swedes had their NH90 search and rescue machines cabins heightened.

It is important that any coastguard helicopters are rust resistant. The Australian Navy has had a very difficult time with its S-70 Seahawks in this regard. On the other hand the Australian's don't seem to have much luck with their Kamans either.

Mid-air refuelling is prohibitively expensive. The KC-130 ( the tanker adaption of the C-130 Hercules) costs more than US$100 million and the Airbus A310 MRTT around US$200m. There is also the risk that the two aircraft will not make the connection and the crew will lose a perfectly useful helicopter (potentially as well as their lives) by being too far from land to save themselves.

 Heavier naval helicopters such as the EADS MNH90 naval version(Maximum range 432 nm Ferry range 648 nm ),

Sikorsky S-92 and

Agusta Westland EH101 Merlin/ Cormorant (normal range 750 nautical miles, extended range 1200 nautical miles) have a greater range than lighter helicopters. For some this could also be extended by inflight refueling.

 The MH90 is the marine variant of the NH90 helicopter being bought by the NZDF. Its specification is similar to that of the S-92 which is the bigger cousin of the S-70.

Of the three the EH101 Cormorant (which is the most expensive) is the stand-out. It has the greatest range (750 nautical miles/ 1,162 nm ferry range) and with three engines instead of two and full-blade anti-icing the EC101 is as safe as a maritime helicopter can get. Its main drawback is that like the Kaman Seaprite its customer list is not large with only 152 machines currently operating world-wide. That said Agusta Westland has been very cunning by partnering with local manufacturers around the world to produce components for the machine. This was crucial in winning the hotly contested US1 contract for 23 helicopters for the Presidential helicopter fleet of the US President. This contest pitted the S-92 directly against the EH101 and the NH90.

 It must be remembered, however ,that these medium helicopters are no faster than lighter helicopters and will spend hours over the water to reach their destination. This flight time means the search area may be extended. The EH101 is an expensive helicopter costing from US$27m or (when equipped for anti submarine warfare as much as US$60 million) a unit.

At the super heavy end of the scale is the Sikorsky CH-53X Sea Stallion. The CH53E can lift ten tonnes, carry 50 passengers and the German army use theirs to carry the Weisel tankette. The CH-53E helicopter is enormously powerful with no fewer than seven fuel tanks and like the S70 capable of mid-air refueling. The machine could probably venture 400 nautical miles from land flying in pairs with extra fuel.

The U.S Marine Corps was not sure how to replace its aging CH53Es given that the V-22 will shortly be coming into service but finally approved a new build because the CH53E was so useful. There is some talk of an even bigger tilt-rotor to replace the CH53E instead. While this may well happen in future it is highly doubtful it can occur within the study period given the delays over the V-22. No cost estimates for the CH53X are yet available but they can be expected to be very, very expensive both to acquire and to operate.


Another solution that is beginning to present itself is tilt-rotor aircraft. Tilt Rotor aircraft have been pioneered by Bell Helicopters and despite years of testing and development are only beginning to come to market. A tilt-rotor looks like an aeroplane except that the propellers are at the end of the wing and tilt up for take-off and landing like a helicopter. The advantage of the tilt-rotor is that the aircraft has the hovering capability of a helicopter but the flight speed and economy of a light aircraft. For safety sake each engine can power the opposite propeller allowing the craft to operate on only one engine. Tilt-rotor has developed bad press because the main aircraft using this technology, the V-22 Osprey, championed by the U.S Marines has had an extremely long and expensive development history ( see the notes on US systems) and has run into inter-service bad-mouthing from other services keen to appropriate its development budget. It has also had a four crashes. This should, however, not be surprising given the extended nature of the flight testing involved and while armchair critics have pilloried the aircraft those that have flown it are very enthusiastic.

The V-22 Osprey has a maximum range of 2,100 nautical miles (mission range of 700-900 nautical miles) and a cruise speed of 250 knots. The V-22 can also refuel in mid-air. It can carry 24 passengers or 5 tonnes of cargo. This is the only system that could facilitate the boarding of a vessel anywhere in our EEZ without stopping. It could fly fron Christchurch to a point 100 nautical miles south of Campbell Island (300 nm away) find and facilitate the boarding of a vessel and then return again in a five hour mission. There are however a few major negatives about this system. The first is that the latest average cost per unit from 2006 Pentagon appropriations US$110 million but the and the second is that the US Marine Corps will probably reserve all production until 2014 at the earliest.

There is, however, another tilt-rotor option. Bell Textron also offers a smaller tilt-rotor aircraft called the BA ( for business aircraft) or HV ( coastguard) 609. This aircraft can only fly 1000 nautical miles ( return mission range to 350-400 nautical miles) , carry six passengers but has the same airspeed ( 250 knots) as its larger sibling. The US coastguard is extremely enthusiastic about this aircraft which it says will offer greater capability and cost less to operate than a similar sized helicopter. The HV609 was offered for around US$15 million without specialist equipment but FAA Certification has been delayed from 2007 until 2010.

Sometime during the study period, if the Bell Textron craft are successful, it is probable that rivals Augusta-Westland will complete its Erica Tilt-Wing aircraft. Tiltwing aircraft are essentially the same as tilt-rotor aircraft but enjoy better aerodynamic performance during the crucial transition from VTOL to straight aircraft modes of flight. Current designs of Erica also use smaller rotors so that the aircraft can land and take-off like a normal aircraft. Erica would have twice the range of the HV609 but be smaller than the V-22.