In 2008, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) was faced with a perfect storm: a financial crisis rocked the world just when budget constraints and the high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan were placing a heavy toll on the U.K.’s military rotary wing fleet. At the same time, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) aging AS330 Puma helicopters were set to go out of service. With few alternatives to replace them, retiring the Puma fleet put the nation’s rotary wing capability into a vulnerable position.
Through its offices in the U.K., Airbus Helicopters approached the MoD with a proposal for a Puma upgrade that would cost significantly less than investing in a new fleet and which could be delivered in less time: the Puma Life Extension Programme (LEP). This proposal involved carrying out a major retrofit of the RAF’s Puma AS330 BA helicopters that would equip the aircraft with modern 21st Century capabilities. “The British MoD was one of the first defence organisations to consider the significant upgrade of older aircraft rather than buying new,” says Ian Morris, Head of Defence for Airbus Helicopters U.K. “In terms of providing a cost effective solution, their decision, which had many detractors, could be described as visionary.”
The LEP, initially planned for 28 aircraft, had to be cost-effective to ensure affordability by British taxpayers. As the capability to be delivered was refined, the fleet number dropped to 24, partly because, thanks to the upgrade, the Pumas’ life would be extended while greatly improved fuel efficiency, weight and operational capabilities would allow the RAF to use fewer aircraft to perform the same missions.
Four initial helicopters were sent to Airbus Helicopters’ headquarters in Marignane, France to aid in the design, early upgrade and flight-testing of a prototype. The remaining 20 Pumas were sent to Airbus Helicopters Romania and upgraded according to the French design specifications. “A crucial aspect of this program was that Romania had both built and maintained more AS330s than anyone else in the world,” says Simon Heath, program manager for the Puma LEP. “They were considered to be the centre of excellence for the aircraft type, and the most cost effective solution.” The helicopters then returned to Airbus Helicopters U.K. for final completion and installation of U.K. specific avionics. The first deliveries were made to the RAF in 2012; all 24 are now in the Air Force’s hands.
The advantages over the older model are myriad. “When we stripped all the wiring out and put in modern avionics, we saved about 250 kilograms. We replaced that with additional fuel carrying capacity,” says Heath. A fifth fuel tank was coupled with a 25 percent reduction in fuel consumption, thanks to two new Makila 1A1 engines, leading to a considerably increased operating range and nearly double the payload. The more powerful engines mean the Puma has an increased maximum all-up mass, offering more disposable mass, which can be delivered in the most demanding of environmental conditions for use in either fuel or troops. Safety is also significantly enhanced with advanced avionics, and the latest 4 axis digital autopilot, which allows for ‘carefree handling’ to free up the pilot’s capacity to ‘fight the aircraft’ more effectively. The on-board systems are extremely effective in allowing operations to continue safely in limited visibility conditions such as ‘brown outs’ during desert landings.
In a relatively short time frame, the Puma 2s began operations, thanks in large part to the partnership between the MoD, the RAF and Airbus Helicopters. Working in close cooperation to cover all operational requirements, the manufacturer was instrumental in helping the Ministry achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the Puma 2 fleet in February 2015. Together with Airbus Helicopters Romania and Vector Aerospace, a team working at RAF Benson completed modifications and maintenance. Three weeks later, ahead of schedule and to cost, the Puma 2s were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation TORAL, NATO’s training and support mission.
It quickly became the backbone of the UK’s Afghan operations; to date, shortly after achieving Full Operating Capability in January 2016, the RAF has flown over 10,000 flight hours in the upgraded Pumas. “The abiding comment you get about the Puma 2 from the crews is that it’s ‘awesome’,” says Heath.
The Puma Mk2 has been embraced by U.K. crews and has become the hero of the country’s military helicopter fleets. “The Puma Mk2 is a fantastic aircraft that has already proven itself incredibly capable in operations in Afghanistan. While it may still look like the original Puma Mk1 to the untrained eye, the leap in capability has been profound and has made a real difference to the operational output of the Puma Force. The achievement of 10,000 flight hours highlights the remarkable commitment and excellent teamwork by the squadron personnel, Airbus Helicopters and the project team amongst many others,” says Group Captain Simon Paterson, the UK’s Puma Force Commander.