Twenty-five years after the maiden flight of its first prototype, the NH90 continues to enjoy significant industrial and operational success. With 444 aircraft currently operating in 13 countries, it proves its worth in combat every day.

Each day spent in the heat and dust of the Sahel demonstrates the value of the aircraft and how valid the technical choices that inspired its original design were. On an industrial level though, in a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 crisis, another battle is being fought. 

2020: a year marked by COVID-19

“The NH90 assembly line in Marignane was only shut down for two weeks last year, just enough time to implement protective health measures that would ensure a safe working environment,” stated Nathalie Tarnaud-Laude, Head of the NH90 programme at Airbus Helicopters and President of NHI since 2019. “We quickly made up for those two weeks, as did the other Italian and German assembly lines, and delivered 28 aircraft last year, in line with our expectations.”

It’s important to highlight that customers gave their full support to the industry by taking deliveries of aircraft despite the circumstances. “By doing so, they brought us a kind of stability that was really useful,” added Nathalie Tarnaud-Laude. “Customers needed their aircraft for standard military operations, but also to tackle the pandemic. In coordination with our support teams, we very quickly developed solutions to transport patients while at the same time protecting those in the cockpit.”

Spanish NH90s are being prepared to take part in the European Union Training Mission in Mali in the near future.

New contracts

The industrial success of 2020, at a time when subcontractors were under tremendous strain from the impact of COVID-19, went hand in hand with considerable business success. The end of the year was marked by the signing of a contract for 31 additional NH90s for the German Navy, fitted with very high-tech mission equipment.

The second half of 2020 also saw some significant milestones, with the maiden flights of Qatar’s over-land and naval NH90 variants, the first delivery to the Spanish Air Force and the signing of the Standard 2 development contract for the French special forces. The contract signed with the French Armament General Directorate (DGA) provides for a first development ‘step’ by 2024 and the delivery of 10 aircraft of this standard between 2025 and 2026. Although France is currently the only country to have committed to the NH90 ‘Special Forces’ programme, the objective is to ensure that this situation soon changes: “Other customers could easily join the contract, and sharing will be especially easy with nations that already fly the aircraft,” explained Nathalie Tarnaud-Laude.

Finally, there is the issue of technical support, a focal point for us today: “Our availability rates do not meet our expectations or those of our customers,” admitted Nathalie Tarnaud-Laude. “We are taking strong action to tackle this issue, a transformation plan that is both ambitious and practical.”

The technical ambition of Caïman Standard 2

Caïman Standard 2 is a major evolution of the NH90, providing the aircraft with new operational capabilities coupled with improved flight safety in poor conditions. The scope of the future standard includes new equipment and fittings that will enable commandos to board and exit the helicopter faster, as well as an increased digitalisation of the avionics. This last point will bring the most spectacular technical progress, with the upcoming introduction of the following equipment:

  • The Euroflir 410 optronic ball, incorporating several sensors operating at different wavelengths, as part of the first Standard 2 development ‘step,’
  • The Distributed Aperture System (DAS), providing better visibility in poor flight conditions (snow, dust, fog), by day and night, as part of the second Standard 2 development ‘step,’ and
  • A fully digital TopOwl helmet, capable of simultaneously displaying DAS and EOS images on the visor.