At minus-30° C, there’s little room for waiting around. Either you’re prepared or you suffer. Either your helicopter starts or you pack it in.
It is the former for the Finnish Army, where wintertime in the northern latitudes promises below-zero temperatures, permanent snow cover, and less than six hours of daylight on the shortest days. In this unforgiving terrain, the army operates NH90 TTH helicopters from its base at Utti, near Finland’s southern coast.
In 2015, the Finnish Defence Forces received their 20th and final NH90 as part of a fleet replacement programme, retrofitting them over the next four years to become one of the first NH90 user nations with its fleet 100% at final operational capability.
As the only armed forces branch with a helicopter regiment (the Border Guard also operates rotorcraft), the Finnish Army is called on for the whole spectrum of missions. Special Operations Forces (SOF) make up the bulk, but they support all three branches as, for example, the Army with troop and cargo transport, the Air Force with search and rescue and, in a year’s time, the Navy with tactical sea mine drops. On the civil side, the army supports law enforcement, as well as the national health system doing medevac and search and rescue. Not to mention fire fighting with the Bambi bucket.
Wind, sleet, snow, and ice
But it’s winter now, and the fleet is on its way to Lapland for its yearly cold weather training.
“We leave the NH90 outside, and it might drop to minus -40° C,” says Lieutenant Colonel Kimmo Nordberg, Chief of Army Aviation, who’s flown 1,300 flight hours on the NH90. “Then we power it up over the course of an hour and start operating. We also use it to make deep snow landings. The northern forests can have more than a metre of snow.”
The NH90s are equipped for the cold with a de-icing system on the horizontal stabiliser and anti-icing on the windshield, rotor plates and the engine air intake. “We can fly in IFR inside the clouds, even if there might be medium to severe icing. Beyond icing rain, which happens rarely, we haven’t suffered with icing conditions; it flies very well,” says Lt Col Nordberg. The Land of a Thousand Lakes also boasts exceptionally dark winters, for which the crew dons night vision goggles in the cockpit.
We haven’t suffered with icing conditions; the NH90 flies very well.
Lieutenant Colonel Kimmo Nordberg, Chief of Finnish Army Aviation
Sharp and easy to fly
Winter training with the special forces means transporting up to 15 troops* per helicopter, plus their equipment. It also means bringing along their snow mobiles with another NH90. “We can take those onboard or lift them up outside of the helicopter,” says Lt Col Nordberg.
Two powerful engines add an element of security not only in combat, but in the north’s unique landscape. “Finland has 180,000 lakes. When you get airborne all you see is forest and lakes,” says Lt Col Nordberg. “The NH90 is fast and you can fly a long time and a long distance without having to refuel.”
Deprived of the luxury of mild weather, the Army’s pilots rely on an accurate 4-axis autopilot helped by a fly-by-wire system. Such precision is particularly useful in poor visibility or when doing a whiteout landing. “If you use your stick and take a 60° bank angle, the helicopter reacts immediately,” says Lt Col Nordberg. “It’s sharp and easy to fly, with a lot of systems we’re continually improving in.”
*The NH90’s seats out-configuration allows the army to transport 10 to 15 SOF troops plus equipment. Two snow mobiles and up to four men fit in a second NH90.