Fact file: AgustaWestland A109M light utility helicopter

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Project Flange – the AgustaWestland A109M light utility helicopter – was the black sheep of the 1999 Strategic Defence Package and has been beset with difficulties and delays: By 2008 deliveries were four years late, leading to the imposition of a R90 million penalty, the only one imposed under the “arms deal”; offsets were tardy, and the platorm has failed to live up to expectation – or specification.

The A109 that replaced the Sud Aviation (later Aerospatiale, Eurocopter) Alouette III was, from the start a controversial choice, selected in favour of the Bell 427 (Canada), and the Franco/German Eurocopter Cougar as well as the Eurocopter EC635. Thirty were ordered with an option for ten more. Tellingly, this was not exercised. Air Force chief Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano has said the SAAF requires the type to take pressure off the Denel M1 Oryx medium utility fleet. The service has long had the need for a platform more capable than the Alouette III but less expensive and more efficient than the Oryx for the bulk of taskings. The A109 was expected to fill that niche. The helicopter is said to be well suited to tasks such as light passenger and cargo transport, patrolling and reconnaissance, liaison and command, medical evacuation, light attack and antitank, escort and area suppression.

The Chief of the Air Force in March 20071 said the rotorcraft was cleared for command-and-control, Casevac, trooping and cargo-slinging duties. However, operational reports suggest the type is – depending on one’s point of view underpowered or alternatively too heavy to with too low a payload to fully fulfil these tasks. The rotorcraft can neither carry operational loads in high heat conditions nor fly in strong wind. At the April 2009 Air Power Capability demonstration at Roodewal, near Makhado, the type only carried two troops in battle order. The Alouette III, by contrast was certified to carry a pilot and six equipped troops. (The SAAF and Rhodesian Air Force usually carried a pilot, flight engineer/gunner and five soldiers).

In February 2010 it emerged AgustaWestland had made an offer to offset the fine by offering a US$45 million deal to construct more of the helicopters in SA for export. Denel Saab Aerosructures CE Lana Kinley reputedly resigned when government turned down the offer. Her company, which posted a R452 million loss in the financial year to March 2009, would have been a major beneficiary. Armscor CE Sipho Thomo was reportedly also in favour of the move, a step that allegedly helped in his downfall. He was sacked in December 2009.

Designation:

AgustaWestland A109LUH

Type:

Light utility helicopter

Country of origin:

Italy, 25 locally assembled.

First flight:

nn.

Delivered to the SAAF:

From October 19, 2005. Final delivery mid-2009.

Associated project name(s):

Flange.

Numbers:

30.

Cost:

R1949 million (1999 constant Rand). R2.39 billion in the 2007 defence budget vote, R2.451 billion in the 2008 defence budget vote.1

Crew:

Pilot, co-pilot.

Major dimensions & weights

  • Wingspan (rotor diameter):

  • Number of rotor blades:

  • Wingspan (tail rotor diameter):

  • Number of tail rotor blades:

  • Length (fuselage):

  • Length (rotor running):

  • Height:

  • Max cabin width:

  • Basic empty weight:

  • Max take-off weight:

  • Max landing weight:

  • Max internal fuel:

  • Max external fuel:

  • Max cargo weight:

  • Cockpit & cabin volume:

  • Baggage compartment:

  • Passengers:

  • 10.83m (35.53ft).

  • 4.

  • 1.94m (6.36ft).

  • 2.

  • 11.45m (37.59ft).

  • 12.94m (42.45ft).

  • .4m (11.15ft).

  • 1.61m (5.28ft).

  • 1.67mt (3602lbs).

  • 3/3.2mt (6614/7055lbs or 3.175mt (7000lbs).

  • 881 litres (5 cells).

  • 5.10m3 (180.17ft3).

  • 0.95m3 (33.55ft3).

  • 6 normal, 8 max.

Performance (MGW ISA-5L clean configuration)

  • Operating conditions:

  • Take-off to clear 15m:

  • Landing from 15m:

  • Rate of climb:

  • Service ceiling:

  • Max operating speed:

  • Max cruise speed:

  • Max range at cruise speed:

  • Max endurance:

  • Stall speed:

  • G-loads:

  • Wing loading:

  • Thrust:

  • Bypass ratio:

  • Thrust/weight ratio:

  • -40deg C to +50deg C.

  • MCP: 9m/s (1780ft/min) OEI2: 4.8m/s (950ft/min).

  • 6096m (20,000ft).

  • 168kts (311km/h).

  • 153kts (283km/h).

  • 935km (505nm).

  • With 881 litres of fuel and no reserve at 6000ft: 4hrs 54min.

Engine Specifications

  • Make:

  • Model:

  • Type:

  • Number:

  • Compression ratio:

  • Engine diameter:

  • Engine length:

  • Dry weight:

  • Power turbine rotor speed:

  • Shaft horsepower (max continuous):

  • SHP (max contingency):

  • Transmission rating:

  • Turbomeca.

  • Arius 2K2.

  • Turbine.

  • 2.

  • 609 (454kW) each.

  • 791 (590kW) each.

  • 900 SHP (671 kW).

Hard points:

Provision for two pylons (can carry 300kg each).

Armament:

Various options, including: pintle mounted 7.62mm or 12.7mm door machine guns. The pylons can each accommodate a 7-, 12 or 19-round 70 or 81mm unguided rocket pod, twin 7.62mm GPMG, 12.7mm HMG or 20mm cannon pods, combined cannon/rocket pods, four-round ZT3/Ingwe or similar anti-tank missiles or two Mistral air-to-air missiles.

Other attachments:

Optional auxiliary equipment includes an external loudspeaker system, windshield wipers, a wire strike protection system, bleed air heater, environmental control unit, one or two longitudal stretchers, 500kg internal cargo platform, single or dual external cargo hooks, taking 500kg or 1mt respectively, rear view mirror, 270kg rescue hoist, snow skids, slump protection pads, emergency floats, engine particle separator, engine fire extinguisher, closed circuit refueling system, SX16 high-intensity search light, FLIR/TV sensors and a gyro stabilised sight. Survivability equipment includes armoured seats for the pilots, chaff and flare dispensers, a crashworthy fuel system and self-sealing fuel tanks, radar and laser illumination warning systems and an infrared jammer.

Comment:

Project Flange is the black sheep of the 1999 Strategic Defence Package and has been beset with difficulties and delays. The A109LUH was selected in competition with the Bell 427 (Canada), Eurocopter Cougar and the Eurocopter EC635 (both Franco/German). Thirty were ordered with an option for ten more that has not been exercised.

South African companies involved in the project include Saab SA, Denel Optronics (now Carl Zeiss Optronics), Tellumat and Waymark.

The cockpit is ergonomically designed and its three 6×8 inch flat screen digital displays are compatible with night vision goggles and fully capable of IFR3/IMC. The helicopter boasts a four-bladed, fully articulated rotor for low flicker/low acoustic detectability as well as low vibration. The blades are ballistic tolerant. All critical systems are duplicated and separated for low vulnerability. The helicopter’s fuel tanks are self-sealing and protected against 12.7mm Armour-Piercing Incendiary hits.

Four 87 Helicopter Flying School pilots completed the inaugural conversion course in early October 2005. Three instructor pilots and a pilot followed later than same month. The first technical course was completed in September 2005, the second in November and the third in January 2006.

Air Force chief Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano has said the SAAF requires the type to take pressure off the Oryx fleet. The service has long had the need for a platform more capable than the Alouette III but less expensive and more efficient than the Oryx for the bulk of taskings. The A109 is expected to fill that niche. The helicopter is said to be well suited to tasks such as light passenger and cargo transport, patrolling and reconnaissance, liaison and command, medical evacuation, light attack and antitank, escort and area suppression.

The Chief of the Air Force in March 20074 said the rotorcraft was cleared for command-and-control, Casevac, trooping and cargo-slinging duties. However, operational reports suggest the type is – depending on one’s point of view underpowered or alternatively too heavy to with too low a payload to fully fulfil these tasks.

Airforces Monthly, the authoritative global aviation magazine reported in September 2008 that “continuing delays” had meant that by in the delivery to the aircraft “was already four years late” in April of that year. “As a result, on January 22, 2008, it was decided to keep the BK117 in service for a further year, as this had lower operating costs compared with the more advanced A109LUH. A budget ceiling of R6 million ($816 000) was allocated for this purpose.”

The journal adds that the A109LUH should have been fully operational in both the landward and seaward roles by January allowing for the transfer of the BK 117 to the SA Police Service Air Wing. However, airframes fitted in a seaward configuration – with emergency water flotation gear – was then not available. The first aircraft (airframe 4001) in a seaward configuration became available in May 2008 underwent Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) at 15 Squadron, based at Durban (with a flight at Port Elizabeth). phase for the seaward configuration there when the first A109LUH fully equipped in the seaward configuration (i.e. with floatation gear) arrived.”

1 2007 Treasury figure.

2 OEI: One engine inoperative.

3 IFR: Instrument flight rules.



4 CAF briefing, AFB Makhado, March 9, 2007.