Being guided down on to the flight deck of HMS Iron Duke, this is the first appearance of the Fleet Air Arm’s next-generation helicopter on the back of a Royal Navy warship.
On a very wet December day, a Wildcat landed aboard the frigate in Portsmouth Harbour for three days of trials in and out of the ship’s harbour.
In just three years’ time, the fast and potent helicopter will be the backbone of the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer operations around the globe, replacing the trusted Lynx which has served the Fleet Air Arm loyally since the mid-70s.
There are extensive trials and tests which must be conducted before the Wildcat is declared operational. It might look like a Lynx (with the exception of the distinctive tailplane which provides the pilot with improved stability) and fly like a Lynx, but there the similarities end; it’s effectively a brand new aircraft rather than a revamp of the existing helicopter.
And as it’s a brand new aircraft, the Wildcat has to go back to basics, laying down the limits within which it can be operated at sea.
To that end the helicopter will join Iron Duke again next month for three weeks of flying on to and off the deck of the Type 23 frigate.
Before there can be any thought of such trials, however, the Wildcat team – from Agusta-Westland, the Yeovil firm which builds the Lynx, MoD experts, the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre at Boscombe Down, RN air engineers and technicians – needed to carry out some fundamental checks, hence three days aboard Iron Duke this week.
Although numerous simulations have been carried out, nothing compensates for doing something for real.
It fell to ex-Fleet Air Arm pilot Martin Dawkins and Lt Cdr Lee Evans from the Rotary Wing Test Squadron to set Wildcat down on the back of Iron Duke – for aviation enthusiasts the model being tested is Trials Installation 3, tail number ZZ402.
As well as landing on the frigate, the team needed to ensure Wildcat could be moved in and out of the hangar using the ship’s helicopter recovery system and (quite importantly) fit in the hangar (it does with a couple of metres to spare), can be refuelled, and can be armed.
All of the above can be done without putting to sea – and will save valuable time when the more rigorous flight tests are carried out next month – known as Ship Helicopter Operating Limits trials.
So far the Wildcat team are impressed by the helicopter’s performance.
“It flies like a Lynx which is good from a pilot’s point of view. It’s stable, it’s got one third more power than a Lynx and that gives you much more confidence as a pilot,” explained Lt Cdr Evans.
The helicopter has already completed ‘hot and high’ trials in Colorado in the USA and has flown on to and off RFA Argus at sea.
For the next series of trials at sea with Iron Duke, the team will gradually increase the weight/payload – including attaching dummy torpedoes – of Wildcat in different sea, wind and temperature conditions. They will also test the helicopter’s ability to communicate and share data with the ship’s operations room team and command systems
There will be 31 people aboard Iron Duke, plus special instrumentation, to assess how Wildcat performs – and the mass of data and readings they record will take around nine months to analyse.
“The science going into the trials is amazing,” Lt Cdr Evans enthuses. He’s also looking forward to taking Wildcat to sea in earnest. “I love this job. It is demanding being a test pilot – you have to keep your eye on the ball. But to be the first test pilot to fly Wildcat at sea is beyond my wildest dreams. Awesome.”
Some 62 Wildcats are being bought by the MOD, 34 for the Army Air Corps, 28 for the Fleet Air Arm. The Army variant is due to begin operations in 2014, the Navy model the following year.
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