UK Defence (4) – Royal Air Force Chinook Capability Added To Iraq Humanitarian Mission Deployment

The UK Government announcement earlier this week that along with Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado GR4 combat jets whose role would primarily be to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, plus the two Lockheed Martin C130J transport aircraft already on station for humanitarian supply relief missions; a small number (thought to total four) Boeing Chinook helicopters would now also be sent out to conduct missions in Northern Iraq is a very correct response to a very urgent crisis requirement.

Whilst it should come as little surprise that UK ‘Special Forces’ are probably also involved in Iraq, it is the Royal Air Force and the need for air power capability that is once again taking the lead in the Northern Iraq humanitarian mission.

Thirty-four years since the first Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 combat aircraft entered service with 1X Squadron suffice to say that the final GR4 variant of Tornado remains unsurpassed in terms of true Multi-Role Combat Aircraft capability. Equipped with the RAPTOR Reconnaissance Airborne Pod plus for potential combat the Litening targeting pods, Tornado will greatly assist Chinook and C130J crews in their specific humanitarian based mission. With its fantastic and long record of mission success in RAF service the fine qualities of Tornado GR4 in terms of fast jet multi-role capability probably require little additional comment here.

The same may also be said in terms of capability provided by the Royal Air Force fleet of Lockheed Martin C130J aircraft. Long known as the Hercules, this aircraft has been around for a very long time and it may be of interest to note that August 23rd will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the first flight of the original Lockheed YC-130 tactical transport aircraft and which was powered by four Allison T56-A-1 turboprop engines. Allison was taken over by Rolls-Royce in 1996 and the company’s engines continue to power the latest C130J variant of this very fine aircraft of which so far over 2,400 examples have been built for the military of seventy nations. A remarkable achievement this certainly is but it is no less significant from another great success story, that of the Boeing Chinook Helicopter which I will concentrate the rest of my attention today.

Designed not only to transport troops, equipment, to search for downed troops in enemy territory and, when natural disaster strikes, to provide rescue assistance, the Boeing CH-47 Chinook in its various forms has proved to be single most important element of heavy-lift rotary powered capability for humanitarian, rescue plus immediate response troop and equipment transport. With as many as 1,300 Chinooks so far built and in the service with the military of 24 nations worldwide the Chinook has little more to prove. With a carrying capacity up to 55 troops and if on rescue missions, even larger numbers of people, I suspect that what sets Chinook apart from its peers is that it has a maximum cargo carrying capacity of 12,700 kilograms.

Based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, the Royal Air Force currently operates 46 Chinook helicopters although it is now in the process of receiving the first of an additional batch of 14 new Chinook helicopters ordered by the British Government in 2011 that will take the number operated to 60.

The history of Chinook operation in the Royal Air Force is also worthy of note. Although it had been intended to acquire a batch of fifteen new Chinook’s in 1967 following cancellation of the order to Boeing by the Wilson government it was not until thirteen years later that the first of Chinook heavy-lift helicopters would enter Royal Air Force service. This was the result of an order placed with Boeing in 1978 for a batch of no less than thirty Chinook helicopters many of which aircraft remain in service today. Subsequent smaller orders followed over the years including some covering aircraft attrition. The Boeing Chinook is made to work hard by the Royal Air Force and much is demanded of them particularly when operating in theatre.

Suffice to say that in terms of required heavy-lift capability, Chinook has in Royal Air Force service always been more than up to the job and whether working in hostile and conflict zones or on humanitarian relief the big helicopter has proved itself time and time again to have been performed very well on missions in the many conflicts and theatres of war in which UK forces have been involved. Chinook may not have the superb ‘brown-out’ facility that the EH1010 Merlin provides, and it may be a touch on the noisy side but to suggest that there is a better helicopter capability available for such a large amount of variable missions required would be misleading.

First flown on September 21st 1961 as the YHC-1B tandem-rotor transport (Vertol 114) military helicopter, and built by Philadelphia based Vertol Aircraft Company (Vertol Aircraft Corporation was acquired by Boeing in 1960), what is now known as the Boeing Chinook or CH-47 has a record of service that is unsurpassed for any helicopter type. Chinook justifiably remains the heavy-lift rotary based aircraft of choice in terms of the unmatched level of capability offered.

The UK Government has stated that the RAF Chinooks will be deployed to assist the humanitarian relief operation in the Kurdish area of Iraq. They will or have maybe already self-ferried to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus from RAF Odiham where currently the three principle RAF squadrons that operate fleets of CH-47 Chinook Mk 2, 3, 4 and 6 helicopters are based.

This is a large aircraft of which in mission terms much is asked of it. Synthetic based training is a crucial part of overall Chinook pilot training and this is conducted at RAF Benson by CAE. Having perchance just yesterday once again visited the MSHATF (Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility) at RAF Benson for an update on rotary based simulation and synthetic training I was hugely impressed not only with the superb facilities available and how, since my last visit, the whole basis of synthetic based training has progressed, but also in how CAE, a world leader in the provision of simulation and integrated training technology solutions, conducts what is a vitally important role. I will be writing separately on this during September.

I am grateful to Gordon Wooley, who like myself is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and in his case, a member of the RAES Flight Simulation Group, for providing me with some of the following information:

In terms of Chinook operation, numbers of personnel normally required would be two pilots and two crewmen. Other crew members carried when required would include door and ramp gunners or maybe also, security personnel for example and who would be used to check passengers/refugees for weapons or dangerous cargo perhaps being carried prior to lifting them out of the area.

The RAF Chinooks despatched to Cyprus this week will have included full engineering support and spares for field operations. The aircraft can, if required, also be fitted with cabin fuel tanks that increase range to around 900 nautical miles, although it should be noted that if and when fitted these would need to be removed before the operation to provide maximum internal cabin space.

The operation in Northern Iraq would most likely be similar to that mounted to assist the Kurds at the end of the 1st Gulf War in February 1991. This was known as ‘Operation Provide Comfort’ and which on that occasion was mounted from a forward operating base near DIYABAKIR in Turkey.  Again, a secure operating base will be needed within the radius of operation of the Chinook with a useful payload. As Mr. Woolley points out, should the mission requirement comprise fifty nautical miles, the helicopter could do two round trips without refuelling. If it was one hundred nautical miles then just one round trip could be achieved without additional internal fuel tanks fitted and that as a consequence would reduce cabin space although leave the external load capability unaffected.

The operational circumstances of missions in Northern Iraq would be fairly similar to those that RAF Chinook crews have experienced in Afghanistan in terms of the climate, geography, and enemy threat, although it should be noted that the Islamic State or ISIS as it is often still referred are believed to have heavier anti-aircraft weapons than say the Taleban had and also that they are likely to have some anti-aircraft missile capability.

RAF Chinook helicopters have good self-defence capability against missiles although they require strong intelligence to avoid the direct fire threat from heavy machine guns and small arms. The aircraft will of course not have the benefit of armed escort as they do in Afghanistan. However, while payload lift capability is normally up to 10 tonnes altitude and high temperatures are likely to reduce this to around 7-8 tonnes depending on the range from the operating base to the operational area. As previously mentioned, Chinook can accommodate up to 55 fully armed troops although it is well capable of carrying more should operational circumstances dictate. Similar numbers of refugees could also be carried, with up to 80 carried standing should local commanders be willing to reduce safety/restraint standards.

Royal Air Force Chinook units would normally be supported by a Joint Helicopter Command support unit that could include joint RAF and Army teams assisting in co-ordination of operations. It seems most likely that RAF Chinook missions would primarily be used to take ‘consumables’ forward such as water, food, shelter, medical supplies and medics and to bring back casualties and refugees.

CHW (London 14th August 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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