Rise of the battalion: Chinook helps transform tactical aviation
In late June, 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS) took possession of its final CH-147F Chinook, completing delivery of a new fleet of one of the most technologically advanced medium-to-heavy lift rotocraft Boeing has ever built.
In a little over a year, the company has delivered 15 Chinooks to the recently reactivated squadron at Garrison Petawawa, providing what its new commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Chris McKenna, calls a transformational capability.
“That’s a reflection of the impact this aircraft, in our normal order of battle, will have on the air force and the Canadian Armed Forces writ large,” he said.
D-model Chinooks may have been “workhorse” aircraft in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011, but they served a specific purpose. The multi-mission capability of the F-model represents not only a tactical enabler for the Canadian Army, but also a new chapter for the Royal Canadian Air Force as it transitions to delivering a capability with extraordinary reach.
“The Canadian CH-147F is all about providing capability for pilots and crew in support of multi-mission operations,” said Charles Dipietro, Boeing’s chief engineer for international H-47 programs. “[It’s] the next generation H-47 platform. It’s been engineered with larger fuel tanks. The aircraft’s electrical system has been enhanced to deliver additional power and redundancy for aircraft systems. [And it] includes an integrated common avionics architecture system cockpit providing enhanced mission management, mission aids and communications.”
In total, Canada made 30 modifications that differentiate the CH-147F from its U.S. Army counterpart. The most visible are the fat tanks, an extended range fuel system that provides approximately five additional hours of flying time or close to a 700-nautical mile range, double that of the standard model Chinook. “For a helicopter that can carry a useful load of about 25,000 lbs (inclusive of fuel), that is incredibly unique,” McKenna said.
However, the commander points to several additional features, not readily apparent at first glance, that set the Canadian model apart. One is the L-3 WESCAM MX-15 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, well known as an ISR capability that he says has been undersold as an aid to pilots operating in low illumination or low visibility conditions.
Experience in Afghanistan revealed that while night vision goggles work well to amplify existing ambient light, “half of every month the moon phase is very dark and you are not getting a lot of ambient cultural lighting for your NVGs to amplify. The goggles can get very grainy in low illumination conditions and the resolution was not great and we would risk mitigate in those conditions,” he explained. “This system allows me to project an infrared picture that is independent of light amplification into the cockpit. It allows me to fix it to a geographic point in space as I orbit to look at a landing zone in greater detail or it allows me to couple it to flight path vector in the aircraft. That is an enormous enabler in low light conditions such as the mountains where the sun sets much earlier. That will provide enormous gains in terms of the employability and safety of the aircraft in low illum and degraded visual environments.”
Another is the Digital Automatic Flight Control System, which provides situational awareness and a level of automation to landing in degraded visual environments (DVE) such as snow or dust that greatly reduces risk. “On the D model we would have to conduct a very methodical method of reducing risk by flying through certain airspeed and altitude gates, and then have make a decision to descend into recirculating phenomena from a stable, loaded attitude. And you would usually lose all outside references for the last 10 to15 feet of the approach. That was a routine thing in Afghanistan.
“In the F model, the automation allows us to shoot that approach to a point in space, say a 10-foot hover. You might lose all references, which is fine, but from that stabilized hover, using the native DAFCS modes, the aircraft can land on its own using the DAFCS automation. The risk of rolling an aircraft due to lateral drift in the degraded environment because of that high energy DVE approach we had to use on the D-model analog Chinooks is much lower.”
A final distinguishing feature, which McKenna refers to as the crown jewel of the CH147F, is an extensive set of countermeasures that will be integrated into the Chinooks around 2016-17 as the aircraft approach full operational capability. The list includes an infrared suppression system for the engine to reduce the infrared signature of the aircraft; an Engine Air Particle Separator (EAPS) to ensure particles are spun out before the air enters the combustion chamber; and Directed IR Countermeasures (DIRCM), an advanced counter missile system that detects the UV signature of a infrared missile launch and “slews to the incoming azimuth of the missile and dazzles the seeker head of that missile with laser energy. This is one of the the most advanced counter missile systems in the world.”
New tactical concept
The arrival of the CH-147 fleet to 450 THS, better known as the Vikings, coincides with a new force employment concept for tactical aviation.
1 Wing in Kingston, which provides the capability to the army and Special Operations Forces and commands tactical helicopter squadrons in Borden (400), Edmonton (408), Valcartier (430), St. Hubert (438) and Petawawa (450), as well as the operational training squadron in Gagetown (403) and the Special Operations Aviation Squadron (SOAS) in Petawawa (427), has over the “past two years really transformed the way we do business,” McKenna said.
Much of that is due to lessons absorbed from Afghanistan. McKenna, who assumed command of 450 in June from LCol Duart Townsend, the first CO after the squadron was reactivated in May 2012, served for seven months in 2005 as a liaison officer and air assault planner for Canada’s Special Operations Task Force under the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, and returned in July 2010 for 10 months as the officer commanding for Chinook flight with the Canadian Helicopter Force.
Previously, he explained, tactical helicopter squadrons resided in brigades and were employed by that brigade when it deployed. With the introduction of the Chinook, “we learned from Afghanistan that we need a blend of both Griffons and Chinooks formed as an aviation battalion to pair with the Canadian Army High Readiness Task Force going out the door.”
As a result, the new employment concept calls for an Aviation Battalion consisting of a headquarters element from one of 408, 430 or 450 squadrons, a Griffon package of up to eight aircraft, plus maintenance and logistics resources, and a Chinook package of up to four aircraft, with their maintenance and logistics support. The size of the battalion can be scaled up or down to meet the needs of a task force commander.
To deliver that level of readiness, each squadron will supply subunits to one of the three headquarters-generating squadrons to train up as the high readiness battalion. Throughout the year, one battalion will be in training while a second is available for deployment. McKenna will detach his first subunit into that new construct in early 2015 under the leadership of 430 Squadron for the workup to declare it operationally ready by July 2015.
“The greatest aspect of this is the ability to have high and normal readiness units arrayed throughout the Wing,” he said. “My unique situation is I have four CH-147F subunits that will contribute to the aviation battalion on a cyclical basis, and I will always have one of those subunits on high readiness.”
The rapid introduction of new aircraft, however, has meant a steep training ramp for both aircrews and maintainers. Boeing provided the initial training to the three crews – pilots, loadmasters and flight engineers – previously qualified on the D model, “so the bridge was quite short,” McKenna said, though still complex to learn the many new automated systems. That course will be completed in August.
In October, the commander plans to transition to the first iteration of training by RCAF instructors at the squadron’s facility in Petawawa. Final courseware for the air crews is still being developed in collaboration with CAE, which is providing a training package that includes simulators and classroom resources. (The four simulators include a gunnery simulator – a full simulation of the door gun and ramp gun – and three flying simulators with different levels of fidelity, from full motion to a “sea can” based deployable mock up of the cockpit. All four will be networked.) McKenna said the course will likely involve four months and require approximately 125 hours of flying time or 50 trips to be qualified on the Chinook. “Of those 50 trips, we are still determining the balance of how many will be flown in the aircraft and how many will be in the simulator,” he said.
The net effect of the training schedule should be a subunit operationally ready to employ by December 2014, McKenna said. “The definition of that is a three-ship of aircraft that I can employ and sustain domestically or in an international permissive environment. We want to limit the aircraft in that full spectrum environment because we won’t have all the countermeasures and mission kits integrated into the fleet and the training associated with those systems will not yet be completed or delivered.”
Once the countermeasures are integrated, he expects crews to be fully trained for high threat environments by 2017.
Unique industrial relations
Critical to delivering both the Chinooks and the crew and maintenance training is a new partnership with industry. As providers of in-service support for the aircraft and simulators, respectively, both Boeing and CAE have taken up residence in the Petawawa hanger. For McKenna, the arrangement is “unique” because many of the functions that in the past would have been performed by the air force are now conducted or managed by Boeing personnel on-site, including all of the supply chain management – from parts and warehousing to even the provision of tools, previously a closely guarded function.
Boeing, which has been training the first cadre of avionics technicians at Summit Aviation in Delaware, is also supporting the main Fleet Technical Training Flight (FTTF), providing a fully instrumented Chinook maintenance simulator and assisting the RCAF with the delivery of courseware. “Our maintainers are interfacing with their industry partners for every single aspect of their day,” he said.
Likewise, CAE has set up shop alongside the aircrews to develop courseware and provide services for the simulators. “It is a constant interactive process,” McKenna said. “For my operational training flight, the drafting and then refinement and acceptance of all of the courseware with CAE is the focus of their lives for the next year.”
Of note, in another twist to the partnership, Boeing has been contracted to deliver expeditionary logistics support, providing kits based on operations lasting 72 hours, 30 days or six to eight months that are progressively more complex.
From barren scrub at the edge of an airfield, 450 THS has grown to a large complex in just a few short years. As Major-General Richard Foster, Deputy Commander of the RCAF, noted at a ceremony to accept the final Chinook, “it has been thrilling to watch the squadron grow at one aircraft every four weeks and witness the progress you have made in operationalizing this aircraft.”
For McKenna, the milestone marks a number of transition points for both the aircrews and the maintainers as they now shift from accepting aircraft to delivering their own in-house training and preparing for an operationally ready state. “My aviators, maintainers, and support trades are ready to jump in and start employing this aircraft.”