Hail Caesar

Riccardo Niccoli reports on the new HH-101A of the Italian Air Force


Cervia is the home base of the 15° Stormo (15 Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) and, since 2015, it has also been the home of the newest version of the Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) AW101 helicopter, the HH-101A Caesar.

To find out more, AIR International met Colonel Giuseppe Massimetti, commander of 15° Stormo, who was also closely involved in the Caesar programme during his previous assignments with the Air Staff in Rome.

The Caesar programme began in 2005, when the need was realised for a new helicopter, mainly dedicated to personnel recovery (PR) and special operations support (SOS) missions. In 2008-2009 the Elicottero Pesante Aeronautica Militare (EPAM or Air Force Heavy Helicopter) programme was prepared, and in late 2010, a contract was signed with AgustaWestland (as it was then known) for the acquisition of 12 HH-101As, plus an option for three more.


The first of these (MM.81864/15-01, UK serial ZR352) carried out its maiden flight at Yeovil, Somerset, on January 24, 2014. The first helicopter to be assigned to 15° Stormo was MM.81866/15-03, which arrived at Cervia in June 2015, and was off cially delivered on July 9, 2015.

Col Massimetti said: “The HH-101 is a development of the AW101, in service mainly with the Italian Navy and with the Royal Navy but it is much more advanced, as it is based on a later model which originated [with] the international platform, based on what AgustaWestland realised for the US-101 programme.

“The Caesar is equipped with more powerful engines, three General Electric CT7- 8E turbines, delivering 1,884kW [2,526shp] at take-off and 1,522kW [2,041shp] in maximum continuous power, that allow a maximum speed of 150kts [277km/h] and a cruise speed of 140kts [259km/h]. In addition, it boasts a more advanced glass cockpit and avionics, three positions for the armament, and BERP III blades for the main rotor, that improve the flying qualities, but also make landing safer in ‘brown out’ conditions. The HH-101 is very similar to the AW101 ordered by Norway That, however, is a helicopter mainly destined for SAR missions, and it doesn’t have combat capabilities.”

The third HH-101A delivered to 15° Stormo on take-off from Cervia Air Base.
A Mino via Riccardo Niccoli


The first six helicopters in the contract, all delivered, are in ‘Mission Basic Plus’ configuration, and they lack the most advanced part of the electronic warfare suite, which is still undergoing development and validation activities. The following six machines included in the contract will be in the final configuration, called ‘Mission Enhanced’, which will be retrofitted to the first six helicopters.

The deliveries were initially planned to be completed by 2017, but it is now likely that the completion date will be moved, as the first helicopter of the second batch is expected to be delivered in the third quarter of 2018. This is for budgetary reasons, but also to allow flight tests to be fully completed on the systems. The helicopter in Mission Basic Plus configuration is already able to use selfdefence and armament systems, which were both validated during a flight test campaign.

Interestingly, the stern weapon is not fitted to the rear ramp, as in other aircraft of the same category. Instead it hangs from the helicopter boom; it is stowed above the ramp, and can be lowered when needed. This solution allows for easy embarkation of different vehicles types (such as quads and Land Rovers) without the limits imposed by the presence of a weapon fitted to the ramp, and results in no need to dismount the weapon.

At present, the Caesar’s self-defence armament is formed by the Dillon/Leonardo M134D Gatling gun, with six revolving barrels of 7.62mm calibre. It can be fitted in three positions: at the rear and at the two side windows. In addition, the helicopter is equipped with a Trakka searchlight, primary and emergency winches and fast rope attachments.

Mission systems

The HH-101 boasts several mission systems that allow it to effectively operate in a nonpermissive environment and in all weathers. It has a Leonardo T200 Gabbiano radar, an X-band system with inverse synthetic aperture radar capability, and suitable for a wide series of tasks. There is also a FLIR Systems Star Safire HD forward-looking electro-optical/ infrared sensors (the same as fitted to the HH-139A helicopter) – shortly this will be replaced by the 380 HD model. On the nose, there is a Leonardo LOAM Obstacle Warning System. The self-defence suite includes a Leonardo ALR-60 MILDSII system, equipped with six chaff and flare launchers, two Elbit-Elettronica ELT-572 directional infrared countermeasures systems, an Elettronica Virgilius integrated electronic support measures/countermeasures/radar warning receiver, and an L3 Communications Vortex Satcom Modem system. The latter exchanges data and images with other platforms, such as land forces and Predator UAS.

An HH-101A in the hover during an evening training mission. Note the forward-looking infrared, the LOAM, self-defence sensors, and the in-flight refuelling probe.

The glass cockpit, designed by Leonardo in cooperation with Rockwell Collins, is dominated by five big colour liquid crystal multifunction displays, each 10 x 8 inches in size (254 x 203mm). The avionics suite includes a four-axis automatic flight control system, a traffic collision avoidance system, a helicopter terrain awareness system, a TETRA radio communications system, and satellite communications with crypto modes.

The crew seats are armoured and the gunner positions are equipped with ballistic protection. The HH-101 cargo cabin is wide, and allows for the embarkation of up to 20 equipped soldiers or, in medevac missions, up to 12 stretchers plus medical and paramedic personnel. The internal configuration is modular and can be changed according to the mission. It can accommodate an AR-90 Land Rover, or a Zodiac raft and a special forces team formed by eight or more people. The Caesar has an empty weight of 5,500kg (12,114lb) and a maximum take-off weight of 15,600kg (34,361lb).

Projection capability

The contract for the Caesars includes integrated technical and logistics support provided by Leonardo during the first five years of operations and direct support during the first year of the contract, including onthe- job training for 15° Stormo technical personnel. The Caesar was designed with a projection capability, the wing needs to have complete technical autonomy in the field. Beyond the first and second level maintenance, it will be 6° Reparto Manutenzione Elicotteri (6° RME, or Helicopter Maintenance Unit) at Pratica di Mare that will manage the fleet, especially the depot level activity. The helicopters have been designed to fly about 300 hours per year.

When it comes to projection, it is interesting to note that three mobile soft shelters arrived at Cervia, complete with a power unit and an air conditioning system. These are necessary to house some of the helicopters at the home base, but they are also fundamental in case of deployments to overseas operational theatres. In the future, it is possible that more shelters of this type will be purchased. Also, in terms of projection, 15° Stormo has ‘Fly Away’ kits, which include all the equipment and spare parts necessary for a deployment made at short notice. The HH-101 is also equipped with an Air Transportability Kit. Thanks to some modifications (such as the removal of the main rotor blades), the helicopter can be transported inside an aircraft of the C-17 category. Col Massimetti explained: “A large part of the resources in the contract have been dedicated just to logistic support, to make this helicopter fully operational and projectable.”

Training programme

To find out more about the training activities that will go alongside the new helicopter, AIR International spoke with Major R Verner, former Commander of the 81° Centro Addestramento Equipaggi (CAE, or Aircrew Training Centre), the only unit that currently operates the Caesar.

Maj Verner says: “The first training activities were carried out at Cervia by AgustaWestland, between July 2015 and January 2016, when eight pilots and 20 flight engineers (coming from the 15° and the 9° Stormo) were qualified on the type. The course was quite basic, concerning only the handling, thus take-off s, landings and circuits, for about 20 hours for each pilot. Four pilots then underwent another training phase to qualify as instructors. They flew from the left seat, while the instructor pilot was on the right, simulating a student under training.”

In January 2016, 81° CAE started to develop a plan for the operational use of the HH-101 (implementation plan) and a training course (conversion plan) before starting the first transition course, which began in summer 2016. This first course was also a kind of test, to check if what had been studied was suitable for pilots’ needs and the possibilities. This course was structured around 100 flying hours to give personnel not only the transition onto the type, but also training in the different types of missions assigned to the Caesar. Structure of the course will continue to be checked and updated to best respond to the needs of the Aeronautica Militare.

The implementation plan will develop gradually. The first phase aims to reach a capability in the search and rescue (SAR) activity at national level; then it will be time to work in the field of Combat SAR and PR. Finally, in the last phase, it will be the turn of special operations activity. The initial operational capability (IOC) of the HH-101A was reached in the fourth quarter of 2017. On February 25, 2016, the Aeronautica Militare declared a limited operational capability in the areas of personnel and loads transport, slow mover interception and transport of contaminated patients, thanks to the special equipment that is already in use on the C-130J and KC-767A transports.

Hovering while training with a stretcher for SAR operations. The HH-101A is already operational in this role.

Maj Verner said: “The HH-101 is absolutely an excellent helicopter. I have flying experiences with the HH-3F Pelican and the HH-139A, and for me [the HH-101A] is a positive comeback to the Pelican in terms of dimensions, large cockpit and cabin areas, but also in some aspects of the flying qualities. The avionics are, of course, advanced. The Caesar is a highly manoeuvrable and performing machine, and it gives the pilot the ability to fly with three engines. This is important not just [because of] the pure power aspect, but because if there are problems with one engine, the pilot knows he or she can count on two more very powerful engines. This is not negligible. The HH-101 shows great flexibility, thanks to different solutions for the internal configuration and for the armament. It responds very well to all the needs.”


One of the most important features of the Caesar is the complete compatibility of its glass cockpit with the AVS-9 night vision goggles in use at 15° Stormo. Another important aspect comes from its ability to in-flight refuel, thanks to a fixed probe that can be fitted to the right side of the fuselage.

Maj Verner said: “It is a relatively simple system to mount and dismount. It will not always be necessary, so we will mount it only when required by training or operational activities.” The HH-101’s endurance on internal fuel tanks [5,135 litres/1,129 gallons] is close to five hours.

In 2016, 15° Stormo, together with a team from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Test Wing) and personnel from Leonardo certified all the on-board equipment for the HH-101A in an operational test and evaluation phase that included activity at home, mainly at Pratica di Mare and at the ranges in Sardinia. Full operational capability of the Mission Enhanced version of the Caesar should be reached by 2018. In the meantime, the HH-101A has also been used in a number of exercises, including Vega 2017 in October, and in PR missions on the ranges in Sardinia.

With the HH-101A, the Aeronautica Militare is making a real jump ahead in the fields of CSAR, PR and SOS. The Caesar is designed for these missions, and it will be a strong candidate in any future international contests issued by air forces that need to introduce a state-of-the-art CSAR/SOS helicopter into service, and fill a gap in those special mission sectors.

The Caesar has been designed with three positions for self-defence weapons including the M134D 7.62mm gun in the side window.
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