Lynx Wildcat: What’s in a Name

Futture Lynx Wildcat 3

When Juliet said unto Romeo,” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she meant that what really matters is what actually something is, not what it is called, or at least that’s what William Shakespeare inferred.

The 24th of April laid witness to the official naming ceremony for Future Lynx (see Think Defence Archives March 2009 ‘The Advent of Future Lynx: Taking a Backward Step into the Future’), it has now been officially named as the AW159 Lynx Wildcat.

The Wildcat is due to have its first flight in November this year and is due to enter service in 2011, although it won’t see active service until around 2014.  Fortunately or unfortunately it won’t be ready for use in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.  It has a markedly improved performance over the Lynx it replaces by virtue of its LHTEC CTS800-4N engines, which have replaced the underpowered Rolls Royce Gem.  This lack of power in the Gems was widely recognised in 1991 following the first Gulf War; it comes as no surprise that it has taken an unacceptably long time for the MOD to actually do anything about it.

Amongst the many dignitaries attending was Quentin Davies, the Minister of Defence Equipment and Support, he was quoted as saying, “The name Wildcat evokes memories of past successes in previous campaigns, and I am confident that this aircraft will also prove its worth on operations.”  The ‘Wildcat’ he was referring to was the Grumman F-4 Wildcat, a single-seat carrier-borne fighter of WWII vintage.

If Mr Davies had carried out a little historical research he would have discovered a number of interesting facts about the Grumman Wildcat, and having done so the powers that be may have decided to call it something else.

The Grumman Wildcat was purchased early on in the war by the Fleet Air Arm.  The original customer, France, couldn’t receive the order due to their unfortunate defeat at the hands of the Germans.  In Fleet Air Arm service it was initially named the Martlet, which can be described as a bird similar to the Swallow or Swift which is depicted on coats of arms and often devoid of legs; not a beast to conjure up visions of a voracious predator!  Subsequently, it was renamed the Wildcat to bring it in line with the United States.

Early versions of the Grumman Wildcat didn’t have folding wings which limited it to shore bases or severely restricted the number that could be carried aboard ship.  It was totally outclassed as a fighter in the Pacific Theatre by its arch-nemesis the Japanese Mitsubishi A6 ‘Zero’.  It was only because of the ‘criss-cross’ tactics devised by Lieutenant Commander John Thach, the ‘Thatch Weave’, at the time that prevented the aircraft from getting totally decimated due to its vastly inferior manoeuvrability and rate of climb.  Wildcat pilots were advised and wisely so, never to take on a Zero one to one and to only attack when they were at a tactical advantage, otherwise Zero’s were to be avoided.  Admittedly this didn’t stop a number of US Navy and Marine Corps pilots from becoming aces early in the war flying the Wildcat, although these were the exception rather than the norm.

The Wildcat Pilots also described flying the Wildcat as an ‘experience’ and its stalky landing gear gave it some ‘exciting’ ground handling characteristics.  Also, the flight controls were mushy and if the canopy was opened in flight it produced a somewhat violent draught in the cockpit.  In the event of an emergency, the canopy could not be jettisoned to aid an escape.  In addition to this, the pilot’s seat was cramped and set too low which reduced visibility, something of a misnomer in an air superiority fighter.  In essence, it was a tricky aircraft to fly and somewhat unforgiving.  The Wildcat was superseded by the larger and vastly superior Grumman F-6 Hellcat.

With regards to the newly named Agusta Westland Wildcat, although its new engines will give it greater performance it comes at a price, and I don’t mean just the £14 million per aircraft tag, it is significantly heavier than the Lynx it replaces.  The current Agusta Westland Lynx 300 weighs in at a published All Up Mass (AUM) of 5330 kg (11,726 lbs) the Wildcat in the meantime has a published AUM of 6,000 kg (13,000 lbs).  As both aircraft use a very similar flight control and rotor system this additional 670 kg (1474 lbs) is going to have a detrimental effect on its flight control envelope.  The Army Wildcat can only benefit therefore by removing the radar to save weight, although its lack of weapons other than a 7.62/12.7 mm machine gun is another matter.  This lack of radar also hampers its other role as a target designator for the WAH-64D Apache’s Hellfire missiles.  The Apache uses two types of Hellfire missiles, semi-active laser-guided and millimetre radar-guided; no radar, no radar designation.

Wildcat helicopter with FAGHW(H) and FASGW(L) Missiles
Wildcat helicopter with FAGHW(H) and FASGW(L) Missiles

Although Wildcat was lauded over at the naming ceremony by the great and the good at the MOD, due to its restricted size it still lacks the ability to carry an infantry section of eight men and two-door gunners, unlike its stablemates the Agusta Westland 412EP and AW139.  The MOD has got around this by changing its designation to a Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter rather than the Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter it was originally meant to be.  The utility role, therefore, seems to have slipped down the MOD’s list of priorities which is somewhat at odds with the requirement of a battlefield helicopter.

At £14million per aircraft, it is more than twice as expensive as the US Army’s UH-72 Lakota, which is smaller, lighter and can carry more troops.  In this sense, we can only hope that the newly named Wildcat doesn’t emulate its WWII namesake and really does live up to the fêted capabilities extolled by the MOD.  If it doesn’t it will be the servicemen and women of our armed forces who will undoubtedly pay the price.

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