Puma HC Mk2 The RWOETU Story…

As part of its commitment to Joint Helicopter Command, RAF Benson hosts the Rotary Wing Operational and Evaluation Training Unit (RWOETU) as a lodger unit on the base. A Tri-service  specialist unit split over two bases, RWOETU is dedicated to evaluating and trialling equipment and tactics that are intended to be used on front line helicopters. The introduction of the Puma HC Mk2 demonstrates the work that this unit carries out on behalf of Joint Helicopter Command.

Work on RWOETU can be varied, ranging from mundane but essential clearances such as aircrew clothing, to live flight testing of equipment. Tasked to working with industry, scientists, a range of military specialists and front line units, RWOETU personnel aim to get the best they can from the systems they are tasked with trialling, whilst always ensure that the front line requirement is clearly articulated.

With the imminent deployment of the Puma HC Mk2 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Toral, the Puma desk in RWOETU has been working with various agencies to ensure that the aircraft and crew have the best possible equipment to undertake their task. Through various trials the aircraft has had its Defensive Aids Suite, Crew Served Weapons fit, ballistic fuel tanks and a new ballistic floor cleared for use and successfully integrated onto this already capable platform. Additional work has also been carried out to better protect the crews themselves with increased armour through the new survival equipment known as Body Armour/Load Carriage System, or BALCS for short. This is ongoing work but BALCS will eventually replace the majority of current life jackets worn by both front and rear end crews across Joint Helicopter Command.

In addition to these trials in defensive and survivability capabilities, the Puma desk has also been involved in expanding the capabilities of the new aircraft. Through liaison with the Joint Aerial Delivery, Test and Evaluation Unit (JADTEU) at RAF Brize Norton and fully supported by Engineering and Logistics Wing personnel from RAF Benson, internal loading trials of a pair of Puma HC Mk2 have been completed on C-17, enhancing rapid deployment options in response to operational need or humanitarian crisis.

Utilising this rapid deployability, the Puma desk were able to carry out some demanding work in heat and dust overseas to clear the aircraft for operating in a degraded visual environment. During the final phase of a multi-part trial, the Puma was cleared to operate, and importantly land, with very few visual clues. Be it dust or snow, the techniques used proved very similar. With its impressive digital autopilot the aircraft is able to ‘fly’ in a snow or dust cloud and maintain its height and position in a considerably safer manner than the old Puma. At all times the pilot can take control away from the aircraft, meaning that there is still a human in control of the aircraft! This use of digital autopilot in the degraded visual environment is a first for the UK and required a carefully planned stepped approach, flown initially with Test Pilots from Boscombe Down and culminating in training being delivered to the Puma Force.

From the heat and dust of 2014, the work this year has been considerably colder. Moving to the completely different environment of Chivenor airfield during a chilly February, the RWOETU Puma crew has focussed on clearing one of the final outstanding capabilities ahead of Initial Operating Capability being declared. The clearance of the aircraft rescue hoist was a good demonstration of the work involved in conducting trials.

After devising a suitable, safe trials programme, considerable ground testing was carried out at RAF Benson. There were some moments ofmerriment as initial issues were identified, such as a crewman hanging helplessly upside down from a winch, or a winchman becoming very close to his flight commander whilst rescuing him. These were the issues that the ground testing had been devised to highlight and were quickly ironed out. The safest procedures then progressed to flight trials for testing and evaluation of the aircraft rescue hoist.

Cue a chilly one hour transit to Chivenor in the freezing cold with the aircraft doors open. On arrival, the Search and Rescue Operational Evaluation Unit crewman joined the crew to offer his advice, garnered from long years on Search and Rescue, on best practices and techniques for the work. He was also able to demonstrate how best to teach these techniques to the Puma Force as part of their training package. With Flight Sergeant Andy Lyes as Winch Operator and Flight Sergeant Baz Reynolds as Winchman, we set off to evaluate as many permutations and combinations of rescue equipment as we could. Single strops, double strops and stretchers were all successfully tested and assessed, ably assisted by our survivor, Sergeant Martin Bull from 230 Squadron. With the day serials complete, we retired to the warmth of the crewroomfor a well deserved cuppa.

Seconds out, round two! With daylight now gone, all Puma HC Mk2 The RWOETU Story… Written By: Andy Lyes that was left to do was evaluate all the same techniques by night. We duly did this, but with Flight Sergeant Reynolds now as Winch Operator and Flight Sergeant Lyes as Winchman, to get a different perspective. Once again the Puma proved to be a very stable winching platform thanks to our resident hover god, Flight Lieutenant Paul ‘Sticky’ Newman, and a little assistance from the digital 4 axis autopilot. The aircraft helps enormously in the process as it is very stable and smooth, making the pilot’s job considerably easier in testing conditions. Credit must also be given to Squadron Leader Liam Taylor whose control of the evaluation serials ensured the trial was completed as safely and expeditiously as possible.

Given the level of work carried out on RWOETU the experience of the aircrew on the desk is vital. Drawing experienced personnel from the front line units to complete a tour at RWOETU ensures that the work being carried out is as up to date as possible, and always relevant to the ultimate end user – the front line aircrew. The experience levels of the aircrew on the Puma desk at RWOETU are best summed up through 2 departing members.

Flight Lieutenant Mike Stafford leaves the service after 30 years, having flown a wide range of aircraft, unfortunately most of which are now out of service (Bulldog, Jet Provost, Canberra, Tornado F3). Having served on RWOETU twice, on both Chinook and Puma, his phenomenal experience has been pivotal in introducing the new defensive aids suite onto the Puma HC Mk2.

Flight Sergeant Baz Reynolds departs the post of crewman on RWOETU to the world of Fixed Wing operations as he heads to the A400M. With 16 years of Puma flying in a variety of theatres, his knowledge and experience have been extensively used to ensure that the Puma HC Mk2 is fully capable of efficiently carrying out its core roles of trooping and resupply.

Such experience will be difficult to replace and RWOETU are grateful to Mike and Baz for their huge efforts over the years.

Although Initial Operating Capability on the Puma HC Mk2 will be declared in the near future, the Puma desk will remain busy. As the Puma continues to evolve, so will its considerable capabilities. In the future the aircraft will be tested in a hot and high environment to expand its flight envelope, ensuring crews have the widest and safest margins in which to operate. The aircraft will also be trialled for its abseiling and fast roping capabilities in conjunction, once again, with JADTEU as the fonts of all fast roping and abseiling doctrine.

With these and some other interesting trials already planned for the future, RWOETU will continue to work with a variety of different organisations to ensure that the Puma HC Mk2 enables the Puma Force to achieve its full potential.

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