Super Seasprites

KAMAN SH-2G(I) SUPER SEASPRITE MILITARY

Chen Chuanren flies with the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No.6 Squadron to find out more about its Kaman SH-2G(I) Super Seasprites

HMNZS Te Kaha is currently undergoing upgrades, and future Seasprite SH-2G(I) improvements will be based around the modifications.
New Zealand Defence Force

For 32 years, the Royal New Zealand Navy flew four Westland Wasp helicopters as part of its Naval Support Flight, from Leander– class Batch 2TA frigates. The Navy received numerous former Fleet Air Arm Wasps for spares, before the type’s retirement in 1998.

In 1997, the New Zealand government signed for four new Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprites, and another sole airframe in 1999. Between 1998 and 2001, the Navy operated four SH-2Fs loaned from the US Navy, as a stopgap prior to the delivery of the Super Seasprite between 2001 and 2003.

The SH-2G was selected to meet the Navy’s requirement for an intermediate-sized naval helicopter capable of operating from its newer Anzac-class frigates and the two older Leander-class frigates with smaller flight decks, and the ability to carry modern anti-surface and anti-submarine operations. Following the retirement of the Leander-class frigates in the early 2000s, the Seasprites also operate from smaller Protector-class off shore patrol vessels (OPV).

The SH-2G Super Seasprite has a maximum take-off weight of 13,500lb (6,120kg), the lightest naval helicopter available at the time. Visually different from a classic Seasprite, the Super Seasprite has a reinforced upper fuselage and gearbox, and is powered by two General Electric T700-GE-401/401C engines generating 1,723shp (1,285kW). The T700- GE-401/401Cs engines provide not only 10% more power, but also a 20% increase in fuel efficiency over the 1,350shp (1,007kW) rated GE T58-GE-8F found on the SH-2F Seasprite.

Since 1977, the Naval Support Flight was a branch of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 3 Squadron, but was redesignated as 6 Squadron, an independent Air Force unit, and a force element under the Air Component Commander, HQ Joint Forces New Zealand.

New revivals

Back in the 1990s, Australia was considering a joint OPV project with Malaysia, and with it a light helicopter capable of embarking on the vessels. Australia signed for 11 refurbished Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprites in 1997, and despite the OPV project failing to materialise, Canberra continued with the programme and began work to add bespoke modifications to its SH-2G helicopters.

These included redeveloping the digital flight controls with hands-off auto pilot functions, and to reduce the flight crew from three to two. Complexities, delays and cost overruns eventually forced Canberra to scrap the programme in March 2008, and the airframes were returned to Kaman.

In 2012, the New Zealand government realised the need to renew its Sea Sprite fleet to serve beyond 2025. At the same time, the Navy’s helicopter-capable fleet has increased with the commissioning of multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury and two OPVs; this required a larger Seasprite fleet to optimise the investment made on the new ships.

Following an independent flight trial by Canada’s Marinvent Corporation, Wellington formally signed for ten SH-2G(I)s worth NZD 242 million in May 2013. The package included eight upgraded SH-2G(I) Super Seasprites, two airframes for spares, a fullmotion simulator, spares and Kongsberg Penguin Mk2 Mod 7 missiles, all from the Royal Australian Navy’s programme.

The first SH-2G(I) was handed over to the Navy on December 2014 at Kaman’s facility at Bloomfield, Connecticut, before formally inducting the first three aircraft in March 2015 at RNZAF Base Whenuapai near Auckland.

The five older SH-2G cabs were later sold to Peru, via Canada, where they were refurbished to Peruvian standards by General Dynamics.

Seasprite SH-2G(I) NZ3611 approaches a ship showing its streamlined profile, extended rescue hoist and retracted landing gears.
New Zealand Defence Force
A Seasprite executes a confined landing in a forested clearing near Whenuapai, a training event designed to improve the aircrew’s handling coordination and communication.
Chen Chuanren
Air Force engineers and technicians are responsible for the maintenance and serviceability of the aircraft, seen here in 6 Squadron’s hangar.
Chen Chuanren

Commander Owen Roger, 6 Squadron Commanding Officer said: “The I-model is like a mid-life upgrade for us. The air vehicle is fundamentally the same, but now with better instrumentation. For example, the observers’ human/machine interface has improved dramatically, and makes what we do much easier with greater synergy.”

Armaments

With no combat aircraft in the Air Force inventory, and the two frigates lacking any surface-to-surface missiles, the SH-2G(I) Super Seasprite provides one of the heaviest punches within the New Zealand Defence Force inventory.

Prior to 2013, the primary antisurface weapon was the AGM-65D(NZ) Maverick, a variant of the American air-to-surface missile unique to New Zealand’s Seasprite.

The NZDF successfully validated the AGM- 65D(NZ), including a first live firing against a simulated floating target in September 2011. Other armaments certified were the Mk11 Mod 3 depth charge and the Mk46 lightweight torpedo.

The SH-2G(I) enables the Navy to deploy the Kongsberg Penguin Mk2 Mod 7 missile; 20 former Australian Penguin missiles were procured in 2013, via manufacturer Kongsberg.

The Penguin missile has a range of 34km (21 miles) and a 120kg (264lb) semi-armour piercing warhead and specific anti-surface warfare capabilities, providing greater lethality over the Maverick.

Maverick and the depth charges are no longer used by the new SH-2G(I) cabs, which now only fly with two Penguins, or two Mk46 torpedoes carried on the outer wing pylons. During AIR International’s visit to 6 Squadron, a static aircraft was shown loaded with training rounds, a Penguin and an Mk46; it is uncertain if this configuration is used operationally.

In addition to the heavy weapons displayed, the cab also had a FN MAG 7.62mm general-purpose machine gun mounted on the starboard cabin door. Both Australia and New Zealand designated this type of machine gun as the MAG 58, which is used as a suppressive defensive weapon against light vehicles and infantry.

Note the Picatinny rail on the foresight of the doormounted MAC 58 7.62mm machine gun, allowing the installation of a red-dot sight for easy aiming.
Chen Chuanren
The SH-2G(I)’s primary anti-submarine warfare munition is the Mk46 lightweight torpedo.
Chen Chuanren

Avionics

Following the scrapping of the Australian programme, Kaman and Northrop Grumman reworked the Seasprite flight deck and retained a three-man crew. The SH-2G(I) now features four large multifunctional display screens, and two smart display units for data entry on the centre console, all of which are night-vision goggle compatible. Since moving maps are not a function of the multifunctional display screen, following an initiative introduced last year, 6 Squadron pilots now use iPads to view flying charts and maps. Other systems installed on New Zealand’s Seasprites include: the Link 11 tactical datalink used to connect the cab with Navy frigates, allied aircraft and ships; a chin-mounted Telephonics APS-143 OceanEye maritime radar; satcom/GPS, UHF and VHF antennae and two sideward facing electronic support measure arrays fitted on the tail boom; a nose-mounted Raytheon AAQ-16 forward-looking infrared turret with laser designator; and eight radar-warning sensors pimpled about the front and rear of the aircraft, which are likely to be part of the ATK AAR-47 missile warning system and the Northrop Grumman ALR-93 electronic protection measure system, both passed on from the Australian programme.

Shipborne conops

No.6 Squadron currently supports five Navy ships capable of embarking a Seasprite: two Anzac-class frigates (HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Te Mana), two Protector-class OPVs (HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Otago) and the MRV HMNZS Canterbury.

At sea, the embarked 6 Squadron personnel report to the Maritime Component Commander and conduct a variety of tasks depending on the type of ship. For example, when embarked on a frigate, the Seasprite undertakes anti-ship, anti-submarine, surveillance, vertical replenishment and transport roles. The Seasprite does not possess sonar dipping capabilities, so the frigate provides the submarine’s location to the helicopter to conduct a torpedo drop.

Explaining Seasprite tasking when embarked, Commander Roger said: “The Navy is becoming more keen on using aviation and we are flying more from the OPVs conducting more policing and fisheries protection work. We train to a warfighting level for the frigates, and explore how we use the skill sets to be an asset to an OPV. We also conducted resupply and transport sorties into Raoul islands via HMNZS Canterbury; a task not often done by antisubmarine warfare helicopters.”

Seasprites, and NH90s assigned to 3 Squadron, have participated in a number of humanitarian operations in South Pacific islands, like Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa.

A hook used to carry underslung loads is rated to 4,000lb (1,815kg), but 6 Squadron usually limits loads carried at 2,000lb to maximise the helicopter’s performance. SAR duties are flown, which requires the use of the helicopter’s retractable hoist; for medical evacuation sorties, the rear cabin can be configured with one stretcher.

An SH-2G(I) Seasprite deploys flares from the ALE-47 dispenser.
New Zealand Defence Force
Seasprite SH-2G(I) NZ3611 in the hover prior to lifting an underslung load from the cab’s hook, a fitting that allows the anti-submarine warfare helicopter to be used for humanitarian and vertical replenishment tasks.
New Zealand Defence Force
New Zealand Defence Force

Training and sustaining

With a bigger fleet, the New Zealand Defence Force and 6 Squadron are recruiting more trainees to fill the ranks; aircrew are Navy personnel while maintainers are Air Force crew. Pilots usually take no more than six years to qualify as fully operational, starting their flight training with the Air Force’s basic wing course on the Beechcraft T-6C Texan II, before being streamlined for a six-month helicopter conversion course on the AgustaWestland AW109; operational conversion follows with 6 Squadron. In addition to Navy pilots, 6 Squadron receives a small number of Air Force pilots on rotation who fly with their Navy counterparts.

Navy observers and loadmasters take about five and two-and-a-half years respectively to train. Seated in the left cockpit seat, the observer is responsible for the fighting elements of the mission, including firing of armaments, and is also trained in basic aircraft handling.

AIR International witnessed a training sortie that involved landing a Seasprite in tight forest clearings, a very rare event in operational flying, but one that provided important communication and coordination training between the pilot and the loadmaster in a situation that simulated the cramped conditions of a deck landing.

One and only

No.6 Squadron houses the world’s only Seasprite full-mission flight simulator, originally developed for the Australian programme, but in 2014 Kaman awarded CAE a contract to install the simulator at Whenuapai for the squadron.

Prior, Navy pilots travelled to the UK for five days of simulation training on a Lynx simulator, which has a similar layout and procedures to the Seasprite.

The full-mission flight simulator provides 210° horizontal and 60° vertical projection, and is compatible with standard NVGs for night training.

Last year, the simulator at Whenuapai completed a 12-month software and hardware upgrade; improvements included uploading of the latest New Zealand maps, terrain and ship models.

Commander Roger described the simulator as a massive enabler used for half of the pilot training hours and he cited the example of operational conversion to the SH-2G. He said: “Conversion takes about 80 hours, 40 of which are conducted in the simulator, which is very helpful when we get very harsh weather over Auckland.” He added that emergency handling could be better managed and safely conducted with the simulator than before, and on a more regular basis.

Overseas training

New Zealand is one of the countries in the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK and the associated Bersama-series war games are important events in 6 Squadron’s calendar.

Commander Roger added that 6 Squadron undertook some training with Singapore’s Formidable-class frigates and Enduranceclass landing platform dock, and is looking forward to future cooperation with the Singapore Seahawk squadron. He said: “Exchanges with the Singaporeans are low level, covering aspects like deck landing operations, but with the Australians we discuss training opportunities and war fighting tactics. Our ability to participate in a combined task group is key and allow us to work in a bigger construct, with a different reporting unit. These skills are crucial in multilateral taskings like anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.”

Toward 2030

Roger foresees the squadron will be deployed at sea more in the future. The Navy is currently building a new ship named Aotearoa, a replenishment tanker capable of Antarctic operations, plans for a third OPV, and a new littoral operational support ship, giving a fleet of eight helicopter-capable ships.

Roger said it remains unknown as to how 6 Squadron will fit into the Aotearoa’s operations: “Seasprite might not be the best platform in terms of payload for Antarctica resupply duties, but the squadron does have experience in operations in the Southern Oceans.” According to the New Zealand 2016 Defence Capability Plan, the Seasprite fleet is expected to serve beyond 2030. The same report also calls for communications and software support and upgrades through this decade.

Roger said the improvements to the Seasprite will be linked with the future upgraded frigate equipped the Combat Management 330 system, improvements to sonar, radar, datalink and air defence weapon systems. At the time of AIR International’s visit, no testing and evaluation with an upgraded frigate had taken place, so it is difficult to tell how the concept of operations would change.

Commander Roger said the Air Force has good support from and constant communications with Kaman, and continues to get good flying rates from the platform. He said: “We flew around 1,200 hours this financial year, but that depends on the Navy’s operations, as well. There may be some minor component upgrades required, but it’s too early to identify what sort of upgrades, especially as requirements change as does the available technology which can be used to replace obsolete parts. Our roles and responsibilities, however, will not change.”

The Kongsberg Penguin-equipped SH- 2G(I) gives the frigates a credible anti-surface capability. This example, with its fins folded, is a training missile.
Chen Chuanren