Wings of Gold: Leonardo Leads the Way

Ian Frain details an impressive competition win for Leonardo, which will now supply the next generation of training helicopter for the US Navy.

The US Navy awarded a US$176.5m contract to Leonardo Helicopters on January 13, 2020 to produce and supply TH-73As in support of its Advanced Helicopter Training System (AHTS). The TH-73 is based on the manufacturer’s AW119Kx single-engine light helicopter. The initial contract is for 32 airframes and flight training devices (FTD). The whole contract will grow to encompass 130 helicopters and will be worth US$648.1 million.

The US Navy’s training airfield at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida is in the same area as NAS Pensacola, the headquarters for the Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA). Whiting Field has trained rotary wing pilots for the navy, the US Marine Corps (USMC), US Coast Guard (USCG) and foreign armed forces for just over five decades and its current workhorse is the iconic red and white Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger, based on the Bell 206 JetRanger. The Bell 206 first flew in 1967 and has been sold in all four corners of the world to both commercial and military operators, and to this day it still can be found in great numbers. In 2007, the Bell 206 celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first flight and today three units are dedicated to rotary training at Whiting Field: Helicopter Training Squadron Eight (HT-8) ‘Eightballers’; HT-18 ’Vigilant Eagles’; and HT-28 ‘Hellions’. HT-8 teaches basic flying such as handling qualities, effects of controls, auto-rotations, Engine-Off Landings (EOL) and circuits, up to first solo. Then the students move on to HT-18 and HT-28 for advanced training with tactical work and shipboard landing training.

TH-73A [Leonardo Helicopters] #1
The single-engine TH-119 was chosen over competing offers from Airbus and Bell, which respectively offered their twin-engine H135 and single-engine model 407GXi light helicopters. Leonardo Helicopters

 

Classic Education

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the US Navy used the Bell TH-13 version of the iconic Bell 47, the Bell TH-1L Huey (based on the Bell 204 Iroquois) and even the larger Sikorsky H-34 Seabat for training. In 1969, the navy briefly borrowed 45 UH-1Ds (based on the larger Bell 205) from army as a stopgap while awaiting the TH-1Ls. The TH-1L was operated by HT-18 until the early 1980s for dedicated Instrument Rated (IR) tuition until a fully instrumented version of the TH-57 was introduced.

The latest generation helicopters in front line navy service are fully digitised and a huge step from the clockwork era TH-57. Stepping into an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW) Sikorsky MH-60R or a Vertical Replenishment (VERTREP) MH-60S Seahawk or even the new Bell-Boeing CMV-22B Osprey tiltrotor configured for the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) mission, is a big change from the baseline rotary standard in terms of technology. Indeed, the only legacy cockpit they might encounter is in the airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon.

USMC students that graduate will be destined for Bell AH-1Z Venom attack helicopter, UH-1Y Viper, the MV-22B Osprey, heavylift Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion and the new CH-53K King Stallion. USCG students that receive their coveted wings of gold go to either the Airbus Helicopters MH-65D Dolphin or Sikorsky MH-60J Jayhawk, which are upgraded from legacy airframes. To meet these needs, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) put out tender to supply 137 helicopters to replace the Sea Rangers; a new trainer to meet tomorrow’s needs and the TH-XX competition was born, before being later renamed the Advance Helicopter Training System (AHTS).

 

The Airbus Proposal

Five proposals were submitted in total, including from three of the main protagonists – Airbus Helicopters, Bell, and Leonardo. Airbus Helicopters Inc, formerly Eurocopter USA, offered its H135 (previously designated EC135T3/P3), equipped with the Helionix advanced avionics system and Fully Automated Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and powered by twin Safran Engines Arrius 2B or Pratt & Whitney PW206B3 engines.

The H135 is already in service globally, training military rotary wing students in the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr). Its fleet of H135s, based at Bückeburg Army Airfield, are complemented with additional airframes from air ambulance operator ADAC Flight Training and Bell 206Bs from Motorflug to train students in auto-rotations. The Spanish Army Aviation (Fuerzas Aeromóviles del Ejército de Tierra, FAMET) uses the H135 to train its crews, while the Swiss Air Force (Schweizer Luftwaffe) uses the EC635. Elsewhere in Europe the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) is among the latest customers to use the H135 Juno to train all aircrews from the Royal Air Force, Army Air Corps, and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.

In the Middle East and across Asia, the Royal Jordanian Air Force uses the EC635, while the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) employs the H135 to train helicopter pilots who are destined for the Sikorsky/Mitsubishi Heavy Industries SH-60J/K, HH-60J and AW101 Merlin. In February the Royal Thai Air Force (RTHAF) also ordered the H135 platform to train its future rotary wing crews.

TH-73A [Leonardo Helicopters] #2
Airbus has protested the decision that has led to selection of the Leonardo TH-119 for the US Navy. Leonardo Helicopters

The Australian Defence Force uses the H135 to train both Australian Army Aviation Corps (AAAC) and Royal Australian Navy students heading to the NH Industries (NHI) NH 90 Taipan Multi Role Helicopter (MRH), Airbus Helicopters Tigre attack helicopter, Boeing CH-47F Chinook, the Sikorsky S-70A Black Hawks and MH-60R Seahawks.

Small users of the H135 include the Irish Air Corps, with a pair of EC135s for pilot training and supporting law enforcement. The Brazilian Navy (Marinha) ordered three H135 in 2019 for a multitude of missions ranging from supporting Brazilian Antarctic operations to light utility tasks, and special operations.

 

Bell’s Bid

Bell offered the Bell 407GXi. This is the latest variant of the successful Bell 407, first revealed at the Helicopter Association International annual Heli Expo 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Bell 407 at first glance resembles the iconic Bell 206 series Jet/LongRanger, albeit with four blades. Bell Helicopter started the development of a successor to the 206 in the 1990s, flying a modified B206L3 LongRanger with a wider fuselage in April 1994, and in the following year at Heli Expo 1995, Bell formally announced the Bell 407 programme. The four-blade 407 went on to find success in all areas of the marketplace including offshore (Gulf of Mexico), and from corporate executive transport to parapublic roles (police and air ambulance). In 1996, Transport Canada (TC) certified the Bell 407 and in 1997 the first deliveries started. By the end of 2010, there had been 1,000 aircraft sold.

The Garmin integrated flight deck avionics system is found in all the latest Bell helicopters on the production line, with the Garmin 5000H touchscreen avionics for the Bell 525 Relentless and the Garmin G1000HTM in the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X.

 

Leonardo Leads the Way

Leonardo is officially known in the US as AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp. It offered the TH-119 (based on the AW119Kx) light helicopter equipped with a single Pratt & Whitney PT6B-37A turboshaft engine. The AW119Kx has a Garmin G1000NXi Visual Flight Rules (VFR) glass cockpit, which enhances situational awareness. The Genesys Aerosystems IFR glass cockpit can also be installed for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and in July 2019 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fully certified the AW119Kx for these conditions. Major features in the cockpit that reduce pilot workload include the Synthetic Vision System (SVS) with Highway in The Sky (HTS) and Helicopter Terrain Awareness Warning System (HTAWS).

TH-73A [Ian Frain] #1
The Leonardo TH-119 demonstrator at Heli Expo 2020. Ian Frain

According to Leonardo: “The AW119 is a very stable helicopter by design. It features a fully articulated rotor system, a three-axis full AFCS [Automatic Flight Control System], including stability augmentation and flight director. It enables an instructor and/or student to utilise all the upper modes of the AFCS system for IFR flight or degrade it down to only the force trim and manually fly the helicopter. The TH-119, which is derived from the AW119, is forgiving and has plenty of power margin thanks to its tried and tested PT6 1000-shp engine. In an undergraduate training (ab initio) environment, it allows mistakes without jeopardising safety or breaking the helicopter.”

The unique cabin configuration allows a full view of the cockpit by another student or instructor/observer seated in the 180-degree adjustable seat in the middle of the passenger cabin. There is enough room for two additional students. The cockpit is fully Night Vision Device (NVD)-compatible and the aircraft has cockpit doors and a low-profile instrument panel configured to ensure maximum visibility.

Structurally there are reinforced skids (designed for shock absorbing up to 3.5g) with replaceable skid shoes to support the multiple repetitions of essential touchdown manoeuvres. With regard to training the rear non-commissioned/enlisted aircrew or supporting various advanced events, there is a cargo hook, which is also hoist-capable.

 

Genie Genesys

The heart of the TH-119 is the Genesys Aerospace cockpit avionics system utilises dual displays, which means the instructor can fly in either seat. The Genesys cockpit has a multitude of features including an independently powered Electronic Standby Instrument (ESI) screen. There is also an Internal Communications System (ICS) between pilot, co-pilot and the cabin. The flight deck itself consists of four 6 x 8in (15 x 20 cm) that provide Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Multi-Function (MFD) information, plus a moving map with selectable overlay features. In terms of safety there is the Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System (HTAWS) with a terrain and obstacle database and Traffic Collision Avoidance System TCAS/TCAS II and Mode-S Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B). The communications package includes the integrated dual VHF/AM communications, GPS/Wide Area Augmented System (WAAS) navigation and Aural Warning Generator (AWG). Other elements of this impressive avionics system include flight data logging, a Flight Information System, textual weather, plus selectable PFD format for traditional altitude indicators with integrated analogue format primary flight indicators.

The TH-119’s engines — Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PT6B-37As — have accumulated more than 2.5 million flying hours with a 162 operators in 45 countries. The engine itself has various unique features such as an independent ‘free’ power turbine with shrouded blades. It also has a multi-stage axial and single-stage centrifugal compressor, reverse flow combustor, automatic fuel control and power electric turbine governor with a manual back-up.

 

TH-119 Becomes TH-73

The AW119 airframe has been around for just over two decades, having been developed in the mid-1990s. It was envisaged as a replacement for the Agusta Bell 206 JetRanger at the time and since then it has served across all marketplaces, from the parapublic and offshore, predominantly in the US, with the AW119 production and assembly line based in Philadelphia for all customers.

TH-73A [Ian Frain] #2
The author had the privilege of flying in the TH-119 when it appeared at Heli Expo 2020 in Anaheim, California. These flight demonstrations included an auto-rotative descent into local Fullerton Municipal Airport as well as circuits around the area. Ian Frain

In government and military use, the AW119 is already in service with the air arms of Algeria, various Brazilian state units, Ecuador, the Finnish Border Guard, the Latvian State Border Guard, and several Mexican units. The Portuguese Air Force has taken delivery of its first AW119Kx recently, having ordered five airframes in 2018. These are replacing the Alouette III, which has been in Portuguese service for more than four decades. New AW119Kx missions include flight training, search and rescue (SAR) and Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) among others. Elbit Systems of Israel has ordered seven AW119 to replace the Bell 206B JetRanger III for its flight academy.

Despite a protest from Airbus, Leonardo, through AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp, has been awarded the fixed-price contract from the US Department of Defense for the production and delivery of the first 32 TH-73As. The little AW119 airframe has come a long way since its inception two and a half decades ago, and now looks to the future with the US Navy training the next generation of rotary wing aviators.