Engineers test military helicopter in Iqaluit airspace

Aircraft ordered by eight NATO countries



A helicopter that has already been ordered by eight NATO countries is being tested in Iqaluit airspace.

Helicopter prototypes built under the Eurocopter NH-90 program, launched about 10 years ago, are in the last stages of development. But before production can begin, a number of trials must be done to ensure the aircraft can operate in a variety of conditions.

On Jan. 17, the world’s largest plane, a Russian Antov 1-24, touched down in Iqaluit and opened its nose to reveal a prototype of the twin-engine helicopter.

The NH-90 differs from other helicopters in that it is made of composite parts, not all metal, meaning it is lighter and less sensitive to corrosion. It’s also a fly by wire aircraft, which makes it easier and more precise to fly. Helicopters all have mechanical controls, but the NH-90 incorporates technology developed on transport planes like the Airbus, which is brand new for military aircraft.

“It’s a military helicopter so the requirements will be very strong and we have to be able to confirm to our customers that our aircraft will be able to fly in very hot and very low temperature conditions,” said Olivier Francou, Canadian sales director for NH Industries of Ottawa. “We’ll be able to fly over the jungle, in the desert and in the Arctic.”

Denis Hamel, flight test engineer and team leader of the 16 people doing the testing in Iqaluit, said they came to Nunavut’s capital for a number of reasons, including weather, location and support. They have set up shop for a month at the airports’ Forward Operating Location (FOL) site.

“The weather is consistently cold, it has a very good runway and infrastructure. It’s remote, but it’s got everything we need,” Hamel said. “If it weren’t for the FOL we probably would have been looking somewhere else, but you put all this together and it’s perfect.”

Many of the tests being conducted are cold-weather dependent, ironic considering the cold snap affecting southern Canada during the week of the helicopter’s arrival.

But Hamel said it didn’t take long for the temperatures here to drop to appropriate levels.

“Today is perfect. It was about -29 C this morning when we came out,” he said last week. “It’s perfect for us because we didn’t want to go all out in -50 C.”

The visibility also has to be good.

“It’s not just the equipment it’s the people. I don’t want everybody staying in the hospital after a couple of days,” he said.

During the tests there are two pilots on board, and two flight-test engineers. One of the engineers has a list, conducts the tests and runs all the recording equipment.

“When we come back we transfer the data,” Hamel said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of parameters that are recorded. After the flight we make sure everything was recorded properly, that the parameters were working, that what we got as results make sense, then we start processing that and analyze further.”

They have shopping lists of tests to do, anything from performance to flight characteristics, to running different flights under cold conditions.

But not all the tests are cold weather-related. Because of where northern latitudes lie on the globe, the Earth turns relatively slowly, causing some challenges for navigational equipment.

“It’s a challenge for what they call inertial platforms to align themselves and know where they are, so we have specific flights to do at those northern latitudes to make sure the equipment is working also to specifications at those latitudes,” he said. “In this case we’ll just go out and do a nice long flight in one direction and then turn in another direction, make a series of maneuvers to try to trick it and see what it’s doing. We have some reference points so we can compare where we are to where it says we are.”

The tests here should take about a month, or between 30 and 35 hours of flying time. Once the tests in all environments are completed, the results will be submitted to the certifying bodies in interested countries and the aircraft will be rated accordingly.

Francou said to date about 350 aircraft have been ordered by eight NATO countries — Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Finland — and the NH-90 is being offered to the Canadian Department of National Defence in a request for proposals that is starting this year to replace the aging Sea King models.

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