Deploying NH90 helicopters overseas is a well-rehearsed routine for the Royal NZ Air Force (RNZAF), as bushfire relief operations in Australia have demonstrated.
On January 5, NZ Defence Minister Ron Mark announced the deployment of three NH90s from RNZAF Base Ohakea’s No. 3 Squadron.
The following day, a RAAF C-17A Globemaster arrived to collect the first NH90 for the trip across the Tasman Sea.
No. 3 Squadron is well-practised in deploying abroad according to its Maintenance Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Rebecca Willis.
“We’ve previously deployed via an Australian C-17A, and onboard HMNZS Canterbury, on a number of occasions,” Squadron Leader Willis said. “Last year, we took three NH90s to Exercise Talisman Sabre [in Queensland] and we deployed two aircraft in support of the Solomon Islands election in 2019.”
The RNZAF NH90s were initially destined to support NZ Defence Force combat engineers on bushfire recovery efforts in SA. A late decision was made however for No. 3 Squadron to work as part of a multinational Rotary Wing Task Group based in NSW.
The NH90 can accommodate up to 18 passengers or lift several tonnes of equipment, making them extremely useful in carrying defence personnel, emergency services, or even civilian evacuees in areas ravaged by bushfires.
Each helicopter weighs 6.7 tonnes for transport (up to 11 tonnes in flying configuration) and the C-17A will carry one NH90 at a time to Australia.
To fit inside the C-17A’s cargo bay, the NH90’s main and tail rotor blades are removed, and the aircraft’s tail section needs to be ‘folded’ during the loading and unloading process. Loadmasters, air movements personnel, and RNZAF technicians carefully move the helicopter onto the C-17A’s cargo ramp using a winch, and secure it to the floor of the cargo cabin.
For the three-hour trip across the Tasman, the C-17A also carried RNZAF personnel, servicing equipment and the helicopter’s rotor blades which were individually packed into purpose-built trunks.
RAAF Base Richmond was chosen over Nowra as the location to reassemble the NH90s due to the availability parking space and spare hangars for No. 3 Squadron to work in.
“We’ve previously done this rebuild in more austere conditions – so doing it in a hangar, with accommodation for us to sleep in every night, is actually quite luxurious for us,” Squadron Leader Willis said.
“We’ve also recently purchased a ‘spider crane’, which will be a real enabler for the squadron.”
The ‘spider crane’ derives its name from stabilising arms that give it an arachnid appearance, and it is used by technicians to hoist each of the NH90’s rotor blades into position.
Each rotor blade weighs 112kg and measures nearly eight metres in length, and is largely constructed from carbon fibre and titanium.
An Aircraft Technician with No. 3 Squadron, Sergeant Nick Hare, said the mechanisms for mounting the rotor blades were quite simple.
“The helicopter was designed to be disassembled and reassembled quite quickly,” Sergeant Hare said.
“As soon as we get [the NH90] off the C17A, we can be putting blades on the helicopter within about half an hour of rolling it into the hangar. We can have all of the blades back on the helicopter within about 45 minutes, but you then need to check and secure the bolts and other connections – and that takes some time.”
Once each NH90 was declared ready, it was flown by a No. 3 Squadron crew to Nowra, and tasked in support of bushfire recovery operations.
The departure of each NH90 from RAAF Base Richmond often coincided with a RAAF C-17A bringing the next helicopter and personnel from RNZAF Base Ohakea.
Soon, No. 3 Squadron found itself needing to balance its workforce and equipment between assembling an NH90 at RAAF Base Richmond, and supporting operations at Nowra.
No. 3 Squadron Logistics Officer, Flight Lieutenant Pete Homburg, said the Australian Defence Force’s Joint Movements Control Office (JMCO) had provided essential logistics support for the RNZAF team across two bases.
“We’ve had about 15 tonne of freight brought across from Ohakea on the three C-17As,” Flight Lieutenant Homburg said. “The freight has come into Richmond which is being used as a staging post to rebuild the aircraft. Once rebuild has been completed it will all then require road-freighting down to Nowra.”
The list of items ranges from servicing equipment to reassemble the NH90s, spare parts and specialist mission equipment, IT and communications systems, and even medical items.
By road, it’s almost three hours from RAAF Base Richmond to Nowra.
“The transport for all of these items has been organised through the Australian JMCO, and they’ve been essential to supporting our deployment here,” Flight Lieutenant Homburg said.
By the evening of January 10, all three NH90s had been assembled at RAAF Base Richmond and flown to Nowra.
Having completed the deployment across the Tasman, the No. 3 Squadron maintenance team shifted completely into supporting day-to-day operations with the NH90 – a mission it expects to continue until at least late January.
“The quicker we get the capability where it’s needed, the sooner it’s working where it matters,” Squadron Leader Willis said.
“It’s all part of the job.”