OPINION – Bell 429 for RMI is clever marketing
Raytheon Australia’s replacement of its Agusta A109E Power helicopters it has operated since 2007 for the Navy’s Retention and Motivation Initiative (RMI) at Nowra with three new Bell 429s was a clever bit of marketing on the company’s behalf.
Not only is Raytheon offering the 429 for the ADF’s AIR 9000 Phase 7 helicopter aircraft training system (HATS) requirement, tenders for which close on April 19, but one of its competitor teamings for HATS – BAE Systems and CAE – is offering an enhanced version of the A109, the AW109 Grand New, so it was a smart move to get the competitor out and its offering in.
Navy insiders tell AA they have been generally happy with the A109, saying it lives up to its Italian heritage and handles and looks like a “sports car”. As the RMI tag suggests, the machines have been used to keep naval helicopter pilots engaged while they transitioned through the backlog from initial training on Squirrel helicopters to operational squadrons flying Seahawks, the now retired Sea Kings, and the new but very late MRH 90s. To this end, the three machines have flown more than 6000 hours in the four and a half years they’ve been in service.
The backlog was essentially formed by the 2008 cancellation of the failed Seasprite project, effectively leaving Navy with 11 fewer operational machines, on top of a Sea King capability that was struggling to regain momentum after the awful Nias Island crash in 2005, and an already stressed Seahawk fleet which was at the time struggling through a prolonged upgrade program. Fortunately, with that upgrade now complete and the recent generation of an extra Seahawk flight, the long awaited introduction of the MRH 90 later this year, and the new MH-60R Romeo due to start replacing the Seahawks from 2014, this backlog should start clearing soon.
The A109Es allowed pilots awaiting operational conversion to fly in and maintain currency on an economical yet high performance twin engined machine with modern avionics, and to learn and exercise basic operational procedures. But the A109s reportedly had some restrictions – especially for taller pilots in the height restricted front seats – and limited endurance, most of which has reportedly been alleviated in the newer Grand New.
By comparison, the 429 has more range, a much larger cab, and features a basic light utility application through the removal of its rear seats and clam-shell rear doors, although this is unlikely to be a requirement for the training helicopter.
The other HATS competitor is Eurocopter’s EC135 which is being offered by at least three of the bidders – Australian Aerospace, KBR/QDS/Elbit and Boeing/Thales. Defence has also had some exposure to the EC135 through the placement of two machines in Darwin from 2008 to 2011 – at Eurocopter’s expense – to keep prospective ARH Tiger crews current while that program’s issues were sorted out.
Yet to declare its offering is the Lockheed Martin/Bristow teaming, although with Bristow’s buying power, its bid price should be keen!