AW109: Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter Par Excellence

AW109-Helicopter

The Lynx Wildcat, whether you love it or loath it, will undoubtedly be the Army Air Corps main mode of battlefield transportation for the next three decades, despite its stratospheric development and procurement costs.  As a previous post highlighted the AW139/149 as a low-cost Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) alternative to the Wildcat, this post highlights its lightweight cousin, the AW109.

The AW109 was born out of a marketing analysis in Italy in 1965, and was the first helicopter designed by Agusta SpA to be built in significant numbers.  Prior to this, Agusta SpA had designed and built the A101G, A103, A104 and the A106.  These aircraft were constructed as prototypes, and although some did see military service, they were manufactured in very small quantities.

The original A109A featured a single Turbomeca Astazou XII rated at 690 shp, although for safety reasons this was subsequently altered to two Allison 250-C14’s.  Following a number of design changes the helicopter emerged as the A109C Hirundo (Swallow), making the first of its tentative flights on 4 October 1971.  Unfortunately, due to a number of design changes and a protracted flight programme, the pre-production models were not completed until 1975, with full production taking place the following year.  Since then the A109C has enjoyed a long and fruitful production run and has a wide and appreciative customer list, both military and civil.  Following the link-up with Westland, it is now designated the AW109.

With two pilots the AW109 can seat six passengers, compared with the seven on the Lynx Wildcat.  Fortunately the AW109 has been certificated for single pilot operation, which brings its troop carrying capabilities up to par with the Wildcat.  As an aside, the Wildcat cannot be flown with a single pilot.

One of the reasons the Wildcat was chosen for the Army Air Corps was that its ship-borne capability allowed amphibious operations; a capability which some commentators may suggest the AW109 does not have.  Fortunately it does or at least it did; the original A109 featured a maritime derivative.  It was structurally similar to the standard A109 but featured a number of role specific items such as anchorage points for deck mooring, fixed undercarriage, four-axis auto-stabilisation, radar altimeter and a rescue hoist.  In addition to this it had a radar and could carry flotation gear, Magnetic Anomaly Detection equipment (MAD), torpedoes or AS.12 missiles.  Although the AW109 is used by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the US Coastguard, it is not utilised as a dedicated ship-borne aircraft, although it was originally intended as such, and much of the above equipment is optional on the current aircraft.  A maritime capable AW109 is therefore still a viable and cost effective option.

In its battlefield role, the AW109 can carry a plethora of different weapon systems including HOT, TOW and Hellfire missiles, as well as 70 mm rockets and 7.62/12.7 mm machine guns.  The LUH also comes with a liquid crystal display, armoured seats, self sealing fuel tanks and a comprehensive self-defence suite.  It is accepted that all of this equipment does not make it a true battlefield helicopter, but the same can be said of both the Lynx and the Wildcat.

As a testament to the aircraft it should be noted that A109’s were used by 8 Flight AAC to support SAS operations.  Following the capture of two A109C’s from Argentine forces in the Falklands’, they were ‘adopted’ by 8 Flight to replace their Westland Scouts.  These were supplemented by a further two purchased directly and have only recently being replaced by Eurocopter Dauphins.  If the A109 is good enough for ‘them’, then its logical assume that it’s good enough to support the rest of the British army.

As further testament to the aircraft, the AW109 is also used by the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS), so if it’s good enough for the world’s best test pilots……

In terms of cost, this can vary significantly depending on the type of equipment fitted, but will be in the region of €8million.  In addition to this a quick Google search will bring up a large number of second-hand A109’s, something that cannot be done for the Lynx.  This demonstrates the advantage of the A109, in that spare parts are widely available globally and attrition replacement aircraft can be purchased from the civilian market and then modified to a military standard by either the manufacturer or an authorised sub-contractor.

So, what has the AW109 got to offer in comparison to the Lynx Wildcat?  The AW109 is significantly cheaper and widely available in terms of spare parts and replacement airframes.  It is faster, it does not have high development costs as these were recouped by Agusta SpA years ago and has significantly lower operating costs.  In addition to this, AW109’s are used by a number of tropical and desert nations due to its hot and high capabilities; something the Gem powered Lynx is not renowned for.

To any commentators that may suggest that the A109 is too small, AgustaWestland also produces a stretched variant called the AW109 Grand, which features 200 mm of extra cabin length.  In the circumstances, a militarised Grand does not appear to be an outlandish suggestion.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that the AW109 could replace the Lynx as a naval helicopter, but then it could be considered ludicrous to spend £1.7billion developing a helicopter that is almost identical to the one it replaces without a significant improvement in battlefield capability (the RN could have replaced their current Lynx Mk 8’s with the current Super Lynx 300, without the extortionate development costs and also maintained a high degree of commonality).  The AW109 in comparison to the Lynx offers a great deal in the LUH role and has the virtue of being manufactured by the same company; something that should appeal to politicians who may have a helicopter factory in their constituency.

In these economically difficult times it does make a degree of sense to adopt a cheaper alternative, and definitely one which has a large number of willing customers should the MOD decide to sell them off at a future date; unfortunately that is a feature the Lynx truly does not posses.

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