The RAF’s Puma Force celebrated its 40th anniversary this year having flown its first operational flight on 29th September 1971. The 1960s designed medium support helicopter has provided the backbone of the RAF’s medium lift capability and has supported combat operations from the early days of the troubles in Ireland right through until the end of combat operations in Iraq.
The Puma HC1 is operated from RAF Benson by 33 and 230 Squadron. Group Captain Richard Mason, Station Commander of RAF Benson and Puma Force commander spoke of the helicopter:
“It’s a battlefield helicopter, as the name suggests its role is to move troops and equipment around the battlefield at a time and place of our choosing. It does that to keep the enemy on the back foot but also to reduce the need for troops to have to move by room with all the risks that go with that and it’s done that superbly everywhere it has operated.”
He continued to talk about the other role the Puma has undertaken:
“But it’s also been used in humanitarian role. Some of you may remember the terrible floods in Mozambique 11 years ago. Puma was deployed at very short notice out there, primarily because of its size and its ability to get right to the villages that needed the help, to take food and water, actually very quickly becoming the platform of choice for that type of operation in the future.”
“Actually, that is what sets Puma apart. Its size allows it to be stripped down very quickly, put in the back of a C-17 and transported anywhere in the world and then crucially rebuild in a few hours. Not the days it takes some other aircraft to be rebuilt and then do whatever job is being asked of it. And also because of its size it can get into some pretty tight landing sites and weather that is in downtown Baghdad or in Mozambique where again that relief was taken directly to the villagers rather than having to have it move by boat or by what was left of the road system.”
The Puma’s experience of humanitarian operations has prepared them well for the national standby commitment they now hold. A dedicated crew and aircraft are kept ready to respond at very short notice. The role has seen them provide support to flood relief operations in Gloucester as well as providing transport to compassionate cases (where members of the armed forces return to the UK to be with very sick relatives, often in their last hours).
After returning from Iraq the Puma force has provided training to the British Army and Royal Marines before they deploy to Afghanistan to give them the vital experience of operating both from and with helicopters. Three Puma’s are deployed to Kenya to support the six mission rehearsal exercises (MRXs) held a year with 230 Sqn ‘A’ Flight due to deploy next and return in April 2012.
Speaking on his return from one of the six week MRXs the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion of The Rifles said of his experience:
“The battle group has been tested to the full and our training was enhanced immeasurably by the fantastic support of the Pumas. As a result the battle group has returned from Kenya with a much better understanding of how to use helicopters and this will service us very well in Afghanistan.”
The experience is also beneficial for the Puma force and is seen as an apprenticeship for junior pilots as Northern Ireland had once done. Whilst Kenya is not the real threat environment that Northern Ireland was it does give the pilots more challenging flying that can be presented in Oxfordshire. The ‘hot and high’ conditions being both the biggest difference and challenge facing the pilots and with the limited performance and slow response of the Puma HC1’s Turbomeca C4 engines.
The engines are one of the key focuses for the future of the Puma as part of a life extension and upgrade contract signed with Eurocopter UK the Turbomeca C4 engines will be changed for Turbomeca Makila engines giving the Puma more performance and a quick response.
The engine replacement will be accompanied by structural strengthening, composite tail rotor blades, a new tail boom, modified fuel system, a glass cockpit and improvements to the safety aspect of the troop carrying seats. The resulting aircraft will have three times the range as well as being able to lift twice the payload of the current Puma and will be referred to as the Puma HC2. The first of the upgraded airframes is currently undergoing flight testing after being upgraded and deliveries to RAF Benson should commence in 2012 and complete in 2014.
This should see the type flying until at least 2025 which amazingly will mean the airframes will be 54 years old by then but with the Design Authority clearing the type to 25,000 hours and the RAF examples averaging only 10,745 hours in 2007 the type still has a lot of life left yet.