The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) retired its fleet of UH-1H Iroquois in 2015 and now operates NH90s. The RNZAF was looking for a very versatile helicopter and that is exactly what it found with the TTH variant of the NH90. The eight aircraft purchased are being used today by No. 3 Squadron based in Ōhakea, on North Island. They are few in number, but their versatility enables them to handle a wide range of missions: from traditional military operations to support for different government agencies, including search and rescue as well as maritime operations, in the latter case with the NH90 embarked on the New Zealand Navy’s multi-role vessel, HMNZS Canterbury.
“No. 3 Squadron is quite unique in the range of roles it undertakes with one unit and one helicopter type,” says Air Commodore Shaun Sexton, Air Component Commander of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. “Therefore, broad utility and suitability for a wide range of environments was important. The RNZAF has found that the large NH90 cabin is suitable for its troop lift and cargo-carrying requirements and that the rear ramp can be useful in these roles. The full de-icing capability is useful when flying under instrument conditions during the New Zealand winter. The NH90 range and endurance, with its capacity to carry additional tanks both inside and outside the cabin, is also appreciated for its long-range over-water transit or when operating in remote regions without easy access to fuel. We have found the power and controllability advantageous when operating in New Zealand’s mountains, which can be very turbulent.”
Essential for military operations, the versatility of the NH90 is also a top tier asset when the aircraft is involved in supporting civilians, and there is certainly no lack of opportunities. In November 2016, No. 3 Squadron responded with its aircraft to evacuate several hundred people after the major Kaikoura earthquake. With roads rendered impassable, evacuation by air was the only way in or out.
Another important event was the evacuation of tourists and hikers who suffered burns during the White Island volcanic eruption in 2019. A detachment of NH90s was also sent to Australia (another country using the aircraft) in 2020 to assist local firefighters in their battle against bushfires.
On every mission, across all terrains, the NH90 is prized for its qualities in flight, performance levels, the redundancy of its on-board systems and, as a result, its very high level of safety. “The NH90 was a two-generation step forward for the RNZAF rotary wing fleet,” notes Shaun Sexton, “so it was normal that the air crew have found it easier to fly than the Iroquois, although the more complex mission systems require more of a mission management focus. They also appreciate the high levels of safety and redundancy in the NH90 design and certification. For example, the NH90 has proven itself capable of operating in a very wide range of environments, such as being embarked on the multi-role vessel, HMNZS Canterbury, and flying in New Zealand’s mountainous regions.”
A level of sophistication that has its benefits, as New Zealand pilots highlight, because besides the high level of performance, says Shaun Sexton, “the NH90 is an attractive recruiting tool as it offers a challenging and rewarding career choice, and the RNZAF has no problems recruiting staff to support the NH90.”
The RNZAF shows satisfaction
No. 3 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has eight NH90s with 12 crews, each including two pilots and two loadmasters. Line maintenance is carried out by the unit’s 61 technicians, while the 600-hour inspections are handled by a dedicated team of 13 people that includes both military personnel and members on contract from Airbus Helicopters.
Although based in one of No. 3 Squadron’s hangars, this team isn’t directly attached to the squadron. The close relationship with Airbus Helicopters also makes it possible to benefit from efficient support and a very good level of availability, despite the geographical distance and small size of the fleet. Furthermore, the RNZAF is looking forward to the implementation of the transformation plan and management of obsolescence as a precursor to even closer support, for example by making greater use of regional maintenance solution providers.