Top 10 or 11 Naval Helicopters 2020

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Navies have been interested in helicopters almost since they were a practical proposition. If you include the Kriegsmarine towing gyrocopters behind U-boats actually a little before that point.  The British Admiralty were even proposing the use of helicopters for convoy protection as early as 1943, which demonstrates an attitude to the expendability of aircrew the Japanese would have admired. This run down will consider aircraft that specifically affect the battle at sea, ones that can engage in anti-submarine (ASW), anti-surface (ASuW), or to some extent anti-air warfare. So, despite having the word NAVY written on the side such greats as the Merlin Mk4 and CH-53 are excluded. This may cost me drinks unless I can persuade Hush-Kit to let me write ‘Top 5 Amphibious Assault Helicopters’ (HK: You’ve twisted my arm). Similarly, the mighty Sea King is no longer on the list as the majority still in service seem to be for utility work rather than hunting submarines. It also discounts such wannabes as the Army Air Corps Apache AH-1, which despite getting some water wings has a laughable sensor suite for maritime warfare. The max radar range on the AH.1 being less than the shortest the Lynx HAS3 could display, which means any ships it shows would also be visible out of the windows.
The capability of naval aircraft is primarily in their sensor and mission systems, predictably the true abilities of these are closely guarded secrets and can vary considerably between versions of the same aircraft sold to different countries. Consequently, the ranking below is partly subjective and may well have consisted of aircraft names being shouted across a socially distanced office to be met with the response ‘what that piece of $h1t?’. To keep the arguments going longer than necessary they’ve also been compared to cars, which could backfire on me terribly…

11. Kaman SH-2 Super Seasprite ‘Obey Your Thirst for vintage helos’ 

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If you want a small ships helicopter and have some sort of aversion to the Lynx or Panther families, you may be able to pick up a Sea Sprite on the second-hand market. Barely used if you find any ex-Australian examples.

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Originally designed in 1956 with their retirement by the US Navy at the turn of the century a handful have been upgraded for international users. The Australian upgrade programme being so ambitious it was eventually cancelled in 2008 after kind of just about entering service. Some of the airframes going to New Zealand who’d actually ordered five new build aircraft in 1997.

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Broadly comparable to the Lynx in size and mission systems it’s perhaps notable that there are less in service among 4 international operators than the Royal Navy has Wildcats. There are also reports that Poland is unable to obtain manufacturer support for its four aircraft hastening their withdrawal from service.

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The aviation equivalent of a 1960s Mini 998, yes you can update them but honestly, they’re not as fun as you remember and getting parts is starting to be tricky.

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10. Kamov Ka-27 ‘Helix’ ‘Hormone replacement therapy’

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The Ka-27 started development in 1969 as an evolution of the Ka-25 ‘Hormone’ with improved night and poor weather capability. Entering service in the early ‘80s there are now 46 upgraded Ka-27M in service with the Russian Navy. China, India, Syria, Vietnam, and Yemen have all received examples of the Ka-28 export variant, while Ukraine has some Ka-27 left over from the dissolution of the USSR.

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The co-axial rotor system allows all the available power to be used lifting the aircraft, and arguably makes working on the flight deck safer. It also allows for a more compact footprint although it does require increased head room in the hangar due to the taller rotor mast. This has led to some interesting hangar designs on Russian warships which can feature retracting roofs.

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COOPERATION FROM THE SEA '96
Primarily an Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft the Helix has radar, dipping sonar, and a sonobouy system tied together by a mission system. Disappointingly although it has an internal weapons bay this limits it to only carrying one torpedo, and that at the expense of sonobouys. Considering the older Sea King can carry four this is something of a limitation when hunting submarines. Typically, in war time once detected the plan would be to focus the submarine commanders mind by ensuring there was always an active torpedo in the water, for the ‘Helix’ this would appear impossible unless operating on top of its own task group.

11 June 07 Helix flyby again

Credit: author

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As with all Russian operated equipment there’s also the question of its material state. In 2007 your author had a ship’s tour of the Admiral Chabanenko during a multi-national exercise.

07 June 07 Helix in Hangar

Credit: author

11 June 07 Helix flyby HMS Portland

Credit: author

The embarked Helix had tyres that would fail a MoT, the underlying canvas being visible, a hole through one of the vertical stabilisers due to corrosion, and a bungee cord holding the pilot’s windscreen wiper against the windscreen. This in no way made seeing it approaching head on in flight any less terrifying. Like a brick under two circular saws…

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The TATA Truck of naval aviation, probably sporting moderate body damage with some parts pop rivetted back on.

9. Changhe Z-18 ‘The Blue Sea Panda’ 

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The Z-18F is a development of a development of the Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon (the original ‘super hornet’). As such it’s more powerful and heavier than the Gallic original with a redesigned fuselage and greater use of composites.
For ASW work the Z-18F (can we get NATO reporting names for these things?) has dipping sonar, sonobouy dispenser, and some form of camera sensor pod. Be warned as this list progresses it will be increasingly hard to make that sound exciting or unique. The People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) are also developing an AEW version, the Z-18J, this has a radar scanner that folds down from the aft ramp area in flight.

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Physically the Z-18F is bigger than the Merlin, although the max all up mass is about a ton less, as such it seems to currently be limited to operating from the PLAN’s carriers and amphibious landing ships. Additionally, the radar’s placement will create a blind arc to the rear limiting its ability to maintain contact with targets of interest when returning to mother. Hopefully, it at least sector blanks* or the aircrew are unlikely to have children.

(Sector blanking is when a radar doesn’t transmit for part of its scan. So that sector is blank on the radar screen. Generally done to avoid exposing something to lots of radio waves, e.g. when a helicopter is landing on a ship they’ll sector blank the approach path on the high power radars.)

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A Shuanghuan Sceo when you really wanted a BMW X5.

8. Sikorsky MH-53 Sea Dragon – Niche capability at a cost.

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The MH-53E was developed from the CH-53 Sea Stallion operated by the USMC for amphibious assault and by the USN for carrying really heavy stuff to a ship.

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Entering service in 1987 with HM-14 the Sea Dragon tows a hydrofoil through the water which can set off mines either by sounding like a ship passing overhead or by creating an electric field to trigger magnetic mines. Being a fairly niche capability, the only other operators of the Sea Dragon have been Japan and Taiwan, countries with something of an interest in maintaining open sea lanes due to a slightly overbearing neighbour.

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The size of the aircraft has required Sea Dragon squadrons to embark on amphibious assault ships, during the 1990-91 Gulf Conflict this led to the LPH USS Tripoli effectively acting as a 20,000-ton minehunter. Embarrassingly she also demonstrated that any ship can be a minehunter at least once by hitting one.

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Current plans see the MH-53 remaining in service until 2025 when the capability will be replaced by a package of features on the Littoral Combat Ship. A programme that’s such a dumpster fire it makes the F-35 look like a model of procurement.

5 Aug 10 Sea Dragons Umm Qasr Iraq

5 Aug 2010 Sea Dragons Umm Qasr Iraq (author) – 

If you absolutely, positively need a helicopter to sweep for mines it’s basically a Sea Dragon or a Merlin. On the down side the MH-53 requires a big ship to operate from and has a significantly worse safety record than the AW-101 being the US Navy’s most accident prone helicopter.

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Like a 1960s Ford 250 Pick-Up, it can tow stuff and it can carry stuff. Just don’t expect sophistication.

7. Airbus Helicopters AS565 Panther ‘Panther burns’ 

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Despite Aerospatiale have 30% of the production work for the Lynx, and the Marine National operating the type, in typical Gallic fashion it was decided to produce a version of the Dauphin with almost identical capabilities. Presumably, it was felt having an aircraft with Anglo-Saxon rotors was unacceptable [3]. With only 16 being procured for l’Aéronavale there was obviously an eye to the export market however only a relatively small proportion of the military Dauphin derivatives sold have been for the naval versions and even then, many have been simple utility aircraft.

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Most Panthers in service have been equipped for surface search, however in 2014 Indonesia became the first customer to configure theirs with dipping sonar for ASW to make sure the cabin is as cramped as possible.

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Able to carry a broad range of weapons from torpedoes to the AS.15TT light anti-ship missile naval AS565 have been sold to Indonesia, Israel and Saudi Arabia who attacked Iraqi patrol boats with AS.15 during the Gulf War.

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Based on a civil helicopter the Panther has been modified for the naval role with an enlarged fenestron to improve out of wind hover performance and an extended nose for a forward scanning radar and avionics. This may have been a hinderance in the export market where the Lynx, designed from the outset for ship borne operation, has far outsold it for maritime use.

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Some sort of small sporty French number, probably a 205GTi. But only the 1.6 litre model.

6. Sirorsky CH-148 Cyclone ‘The Cyclone Wars’ 

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In 1993 the Canadian government cancelled its order for up to 50 Merlins to replace their ageing Sea King fleet incurring fees of $470 Million. In an attempt to prove they were the equals of the UK Government when it came to aircraft procurement the subsequent programme suffered a level of delay and near cancellation that the experts at the MoD and Westlands can only have viewed with admiration. An order for 28 Cyclones, based on the Sikorsky S-92, was made in 2004 with deliveries expected four years later. Only two years late first deliveries of the CH-148 were announced, to an interim standard, and with an engine upgrade already planned because the originals weren’t powerful enough. These deliveries were delayed. By July of 2012 with no mission capable aircraft delivered and up to $88 Million of fines due the programme was clearly going badly and by 2013 there was a brief flirtation with buying Merlin. Deliveries finally started in late 2015 to an interim standard that allowed shore-based training with operationally capable aircraft starting to arrive in 2018. So only about a decade late.

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Modification from the baseline H-92 includes strengthened undercarriage and deck-handling gear, main and tail rotor folding, anti-corrosion measures, and optional air-to-air refuelling. They have presumably also had the modifications to the oil system that were rolled out post the 2009 crash of a civilian S-92.
Now in service the Cyclone appears to deliver what you’d want in an ASW helicopter, endurance, internal volume, and the ability to land on a Frigate or Destroyer. So much like the Merlins they could have had, but a few decades late and with all the development costs borne by the Canadian Government. With only 28 CH-148 planned and no other purchasers of the naval H-92 airframe future development costs are also likely to be high. Overall it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Cyclone has been an expensive way of not buying Merlins.

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A Cadillac CT6-V with all the optional extras selected because after two changes of partner you’re still not allowed a Bentley.

5. Westland Super Lynx – Set the standard for small naval helicopters. ‘The Yeovil Yoda’ 

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There are two types of helicopter on this list. Ones that were designed for naval operations from the outset, and ones that are adaptions of land-based aircraft. The Lynx family fall firmly into the former category. The requirement to operate to a small ship’s flight deck in sea state 6 resulted in an aircraft with a rigid rotor head [4] made of a lump of titanium making it highly responsive to the pilot’s inputs. To absorb the shock from landing a long stroking undercarriage was fitted that could deal with the ship rising up to meet the aircraft at the wrong moment. A capability enthusiastically demonstrated by the instructor on the author’s familiarisation flight by dropping the collective while in a 20’ hover.

21 JUNE 07 Lynx on Portland USS Laboon in background

21 JUNE 07 Lynx on Portland USS Laboon in background (credit: author)

A harpoon deck lock system was fitted immediately below the rotor head which allows the aircraft to attach itself to a flight deck equipped with a compatible grid. Together with the angled main undercarriage and castoring nosewheel this permits the Lynx to turn to face into wind independently of the ship’s heading. This allows operations in restricted waters or if the ship is operating a towed array sonar and manoeuvring would interrupt its use.

19 JUNE 07 Lynx on Admiral Chabanenko

19 JUNE 07 Lynx on Admiral Chabanenko (credit: author)

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In Royal Naval use the Lynx was operated in the Anti-Surface Warfare role in which it excelled in the Falklands and Gulf conflicts. It also had a side-line in delivering torpedoes or depth charges to submarines detected by other helicopters or surface ships. With a peak of seventeen operators of the naval variant there are a bewildering array of sensor options, the majority now feature a 360° scan radar, never a feature of UK models even if the RN splashed out on the radome. Most employ some form of camera turret on the nose, while some have a true ASW capability with a dipping sonar fitted in the cabin. Leonardo’s Yeovil are carrying out modernisation programmes for several Lynx operators including Brazil and Portugal with the type expected to remain in service for years to come.
The Lynx is the go-to small ships helicopter able to operate in the harshest of conditions and able to carry a range of weapons. The only downside is the limited endurance compared to larger aircraft.

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A classic that’s still being remanufactured into as new condition, the Lynx is the E-Type.

 4. NHIndustries NH90 ‘Flash ‘arry’

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A broadly Seahawk sized aircraft, the NH-90 was designed to meet a range of requirements for France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, the UK dropping out of the programme in 1987. Design work started in the early 90s making it one of the newest designs in this survey. Produced in two version, the Tactical Transport Helicopter and the NATO Frigate Helicopter it’s notable for being the first production Fly-By-Wire helicopter with a quadruplex control system. Because nothing says you trust a system like having four copies of it. This has a number of advantages over conventional mechanical controls including weight saving and the elimination of adverse handling characteristics. Deliveries of the TTH began in 2006 with the first NFH finally being delivered to the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) in 2010 after delays due to problems with the mission system software. It would be a further three years before the RNLN received aircraft to the initial full operational capability.

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For the NFH role the NH-90 can be configured with a variety of sensors for ASuW and ASW including dipping sonar in the cabin. Similarly, a range of external stores can be carried including torpedoes, anti-ship, and Stinger air-to-air missiles.

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Although on paper the NH-90 appears a capable naval aircraft its introduction to service has not been without problems.

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Embarrassingly for a naval helicopter the first deployments, by the Royal Netherlands Navy, revealed problems with corrosion leading to compensation payments and a suspension of deliveries until a solution was found. Other operators have had problems with windscreen cracking, oil cooler fans failing, and a cabin floor that’s unable to withstand the impact of soldiers’ boots. In Australia’s case the shortcomings and delays to its TTH were so significant that they received an additional aircraft free of charge. Consequently, they chose the SH-60R to replace their SH-60Bs in preference to the NFH.
Overall, the NH-90 has potential but is only now putting its development woes behind it.

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A Tesla, lots of shiny technology which you then find doesn’t work how you thought.

3. Leonardo AW101 Merlin ‘What’s up the wizard’s sleeve?’

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The EHI-01 Marlin programme stemmed from a UK requirement to replace the Sea King which was merged with a similar Italian requirement. Thanks to multiple typographic errors this became the EH-101 Merlin, a small bird of prey being a less obvious successor to the Swordfish, Albacore, and Barracuda than a large sport fish with an extend spike-like bill. [5] Although development started in 1984 as with most late Cold War programmes the introduction to service was delayed with the first production aircraft flying over a decade later in 1995. The situation was not improved when one of the pre-production aircraft was lost after the rotor brake applied itself in flight. This didn’t stop the rotors, but it did melt the brake which then made its way through bits of the aircraft that don’t like having molten metal interact with them. Further development and flight trials permitted the Merlin to finally enter service in 2000 with 824 NAS at RNAS Culdrose.
With a similarly demanding operating profile as the Lynx and Wildcat the Merlin can operate to the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates in the most demanding conditions. It just looks a lot scarier as the pilot appears to be trying to put himself inside the hangar in order to get the main landing gear on the deck. Westlands and Agusta also came up with a novel way to meet the challenging One Engine Inoperative (OEI) requirements by having three engines, any two of which will cover you for most stages of flight.
As an ASW helicopter the Merlin is hard to beat with room for a range of sensors, endurance that makes you fear for the crew’s bladders and the ability to carry up to four torpedoes.

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The Italian Navy also use theirs for AEW with an enlarged ventral radome, the RN meanwhile introducing a similar capability in the near future with the slightly less elegant solution of strapping a Searchwater radar to the side. The other major naval user is the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force which replaced its Sea Dragons with Kawasaki built Merlins modified to tow a mine-sweeping sled and equipped with a laser mine detection system. The main drawback is its size, which even on the Type 23 which was designed to take it can make operations more challenging than they would be with something like the Wildcat.

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Bentley Mulsanne, big, fast, expensive.

2. Leonardo AW159 Wildcat HMA Mk2 ‘Missing Lynx’ 

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Many people will tell you the Wildcat isn’t a Lynx, including the manufacturer and my Boss. The cynical will point out a lot of the transmission system was carried over, and many part numbers start with an LX, but the airframe is a significant redesign using a monolithic structure, the mission system makes even the final Lynx HMA8 [6] look like it was using an abacus, and the engines can provide about twice as much power.

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Learning from 30+ years of embarked operations by the Lynx the Wildcat maintains the ability to operate to and from small ship flight decks in sea states where eating seems ill-advised, despite being a ton heavier and with further growth potential. The sensor suite has been completely revised from the Lynx with AESA radar, multi-mode E/O turret, and an ESM and RWR fit that doesn’t appear to be left over from World War II. It’s also possible to fit a dipping sonar in the cabin, an option chosen by South Korea and the Philippines.
A wide range of anti-surface and anti-submarine weapons can be carried. The Royal Navy’s can also be equipped with an aerodynamic weapons wing that offsets the weight of the stores. With increasing concern over swarming attacks by multiple small craft, especially in maritime choke points, the Wildcat’s ability to carry 20 lightweight multi-purpose missiles gives it an edge compared to other naval helicopters.

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Armed with the ‘West Country Organ’

The major downside to the Wildcat is the limited endurance which hasn’t improved on that of the Lynx. While the cynical may consider the author’s bias has placed it so high on the list it should be noted South Korea a country virtually at war with its neighbour [7] selected the Wildcat in preference to the next aircraft.

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If the Lynx is an E-Type, the Wildcat is an F-Type the 21st Century reinvention of a classic.

  1. Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo Syndrome’ 

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The Seahawk is the naval development of the ubiquitous Blackhawk. The initial SH-60B version was primarily an ASuW aircraft fulfilling a similar role to the Lynx. To replace the Sea King the SH-60F introduced dipping sonar for close in protection of the carrier battle group. At the beginning of the 21st century the Romeo model entered production which combined the abilities of both in one airframe. As such it’s a jack-of-all-trades and now equips all previous SH-60B and F squadrons.

Flying the Blackhawk in combat with Jack McCain here

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Compared to the Blackhawk the basic Seahawk airframe has a revised undercarriage with the tail wheels moved forwards to the transmission joint [8] reducing the deck footprint. A Recovery Assist, Secure and Traverse System (RAST) is fitted which although more involved in operation than the Harpoon system used by the Lynx, Wildcat and Merlin will also move the aircraft into the hangar reducing the number or personnel required to work on deck. A folding tail, electric blade folding, and an emergency flotation system complete the navalisation.

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With over 300 produced the SH-60R is in use with navies around the world, frequently replacing the Sea King. Able to conduct ASW or ASuW with a range of weapons including Hellfire missiles there seem to be few downsides to the latest version of the Sea Hawk. The broad range of capabilities will however make maintaining currency in all of them a challenge for the aircrew.

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Yes, I know the helo is not a Seahawk.

Competent in all areas, it’s the choice you don’t want to make to avoid being predictable. So basically a 3 Series.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. He struggled to find an alternative to a 3 series so ended up with a coupe to try and retain his youth. If you want a British Pacific Fleet roundel sticker he can now fix you up.

[1] Wilson, Michael. A Submariners’ War: The Indian Ocean, 1939-1945. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2000. 135-146
[2] CinC Western Approaches. ‘Minutes of Conference on Operation of Aircraft from Escort Carriers, Held at Derby House’, 26 November 1943. ADM 1/13781. National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.
[3] In a conventional helicopter the designer has a choice in direction of rotation of the main rotor blades. This affects which pedal the pilot has to push when he raises the collective. Traditionally French and Russian types rotate clockwise when viewed from above, American and British anti-clockwise.
[4] Helicopter blades need freedom to feather to change pitch, to flap as the lift force changes during each rotation, and to lead and lag as the drag forces change during each rotation. Earlier types achieved this with actual hinges and a lot of inertia. The MB-105 and Lynx were the first production aircraft to achieve this with only a feathering hinge, flapping and lead lag forces being absorbed by flexing of the rotor head itself.
[5] Brown, D. K., and George Moore. Rebuilding the Royal Navy: Warship Design since 1945. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2012. Chap. 7
[6] There were multiple upgrades to the HMA8 mission system the final one even replacing the vacuum tube tactical display with a high-resolution flat screen monitor as if it was the 21st century.
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROKS_Cheonan_sinking
[8] Where the fuselage is attached to the tail boom.

We launch our new beautiful book!

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“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  

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From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as

“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.

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I can do it with your help.

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3 comments

  1. Ron Smith

    A very interesting and well-informed article. Of course, the Merlin is not alone in its choice of three engines – the Super Frelon, the Chinese Z-18 and the MH-53E are other examples.
    I saw a very lively demonstration of a Helix at Lyubertsy, near Moscow in June 1992. I was struck by the manoeuvrability of this aircraft and its low noise signature (no main rotor tail rotor interaction – unlike the Lynx). I also noticed the very low cabin height, compounded by the lower portion of the main gearbox projecting through the roof line. My report at the time said “… flight demonstration, which showed it to be quiet and highly manoeuvrable about all axes. The aircraft was flown vigorously whilst remaining in a very small area, with very precise spot turns and rapid roll reversals. Pitch control power was not as high as in roll [probably due to differences in inertia] but the aircraft was flown to significant nose-up and nose-down attitudes.
    The Lynx rotor head is generally known as semi-rigid, rather than rigid, because of the reliance on the use of flexible elements within the rotor head to accommodate flapping and lag motion, as described. Due to their shapes, these elements are described as the “cutlet” and “dog-bone”!
    Having had a limited involvement in EH101 and been on the Configuration Team of NH-90 (In the days when the UK was part of that programme), I regard the SH-60 (and UH-60) as rather lacking in cabin height. The Seasprite remains a bit of a mystery to me – I wonder how its deck operating limits (wind and sea state) compare with those of Lynx.
    On the S-92, Canadian procurement is very prone to changes in the political environment. The decision to procure a platform requiring substantial airframe and system development, when the Merlin was already proven in the role, and the basic type (CH-149 Cormorant) was already in service with the Canadian Forces is truly extraordinary.

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