OTAGO Seasprite FOCFT a success
By LT BENNY MELVILLE
During the period 7 May to 18 May 2012, HMNZS OTAGO conducted the sea phase of First of Class Flight Trials (FOCFT). This involved embarking a number of extra personnel to supplement Ship’s Company, as well as members of the civilian company Prism Defence, which was contracted to complete the trials.
Over the two weeks, OTAGO went from benign conditions during the day, through to challenging conditions at night, in order to develop a comprehensive Ship Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOL) envelope. Once the formal process has been completed, this SHOL will allow the Navy’s Seasprite helicopters to conduct embarked operations from the Offshore Patrol Vessels OTAGO and WELLINGTON.
FOCFT involves taking off and landing the helicopter in many different combinations of wind (relative to the ship) and ship movement (pitch and roll). The trials start in calm conditions with little ship movement, and gradually progress into harsher conditions, and finally, night operations.
Throughout these operations, data is collected from both the helicopter and ship. This data is then analysed and used to construct the SHOL. At each stage of the trials, ‘normal’ (all systems serviceable on the aircraft) landings are conducted as well as ‘emergency’ landings, where certain systems in the aircraft are disabled.
The OPVs were introduced into service in 2010. However they have not been able to conduct embarked operations with the Seasprite as no safe operating limits had been established. FOCFT allows the OPV aviation capability to be released by establishing these limits.
The primary roles of the OPVs include (among other things) fisheries and border protection, patrols and maritime search and rescue. OTAGO is able to complete these tasks far more effectively with a Seasprite embarked, so the completion of FOCFT will increase the operational effectiveness of the OPVs quite significantly.
For the first few days of the OPV-Seasprite FOCFT, light winds and calm seas were required so OTAGO stayed in the Hauraki Gulf, sailing on all different courses at all different speeds. On the hunt for larger seas and stronger winds, we then ventured to the Bay of Plenty where these conditions were found. With relative winds up to 50 knots (93 kmh) and sea state five, the team continued to gather data while the helicopter relentlessly conducted deck landings.
This was a busy time for the entire ship’s company; as the helicopter practised emergency landings, the ship was required to be at Emergency Stations, which involved all those not involved in flying being on standby at the Damage Control section base. This continued until Sunday morning when the ship anchored in Buffalo Bay, off the coast of Whitianga.
The ship’s company were given the day off and boat runs ashore meant we could get a quick rest after a busy week. On Monday morning the ship sailed again for the Hauraki Gulf to conduct the same trials but at night, with the helicopter crew operating on Night Vision Goggles.
The trials have been the culmination of a lot of hard work from all around the Navy and Air Force. The result will be a significant increase in the capabilities of the OPVs, meaning the Navy is able to further its outputs to the Government and the wider New Zealand community.
"Operating helicopters from ships underway at sea is one of the most challenging activities any Navy undertakes,” says Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Tony Parr. “We have been flying helicopters from the frigates for many years, but now we are learning how to operate these aircraft from a different ship with different characteristics.”
The trials proved that the Seasprite can conduct an airborne surveillance task from the OPV of up to 2.5 hours duration, which should enable 4500 square nautical miles to be covered in a single sortie by day or night.
“The trials have proven the helicopter can operate off the ship across a wide range of sea and wind conditions. Although it will be some time before the full potential is released, the Navy can now begin helicopter operations during which time we will continue to learn and develop our capability.”