The aircraft operated from QinetiQ’s Boscombe Down facility have always been distinctive. Either painted in the red, white and dark blue ‘Raspberry Ripple’ scheme of the QinetiQ run Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) or operating an aircraft type not commonly used in the UK they always attract interest.
This was especially true when two Mil Mi-17 Hips in ‘Raspberry Ripple’ with UK military registrations broke cover. Photos of the Mi-17s operating on the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) started to appear on the internet. Various suggestions of why QinetiQ was operating these former East Bloc helicopters started to appear on internet forums.
The answers came on Wednesday 3rd March 2010, QinetiQ and the MoD revealed Project CURIUM and the role the Mi-17s played within it.
Project CURIUM is a Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) initiative to train nine Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) aircrews (consisting of eighteen pilots and nine flight engineers) on the Mi-17 Hips.
The initiative is the UK’s contribution to the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) effort to develop the ANAAC. The Americans are also running a similar Mi-17 training course for the ANAAC under the same ISAF program.
Mi-17 Flight Training Course
The training course takes 12 months to complete and accepted its first students in September 2008. It was modelled on the training provided to UK forces by the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) but with some key differences. Where the UK students would attend a basic flying course, an advanced flying course and finally type training with the squadron Operating Conversion Unit (OCU) the Afghan students would attend a basic flying course before attending the advanced flying course on the aircraft type they will fly in theatre. Combining the advanced flying course and the OCU course reduces the time needed before a student can reach initial theatre operating capability.
The students (all of whom are Officers) undergo selection in Afghanistan before travelling to the UK where training can be provided in a safe and controlled environment. The students start by improving their English skills at Beaconsfield Defence School of Languages then move onto RAF Cranwell where they will undergo elementary flight training. This is performed on the Firefly where they fly 10 hours.
The students then move onto RAF Netheravon (after the first batch of students completed this stage of the training it was moved to MOD Boscombe Down for logistical reasons) where they first attend the Gazelle ground school before getting their first taste of rotary wing flying on the Gazelle. A total of 60 hours will be flown on the Gazelle covering learning to fly helicopters and an introduction to low level flying.
The final stage of the course is operated at MOD Boscombe Down on the Mi-17. They will cover flying in formation, confined landing and basic defensive manoeuvres in the 45 hours of flying.
This completes QinetiQ and the MoD’s involvement but once back in Afghanistan the crews will undergo advanced training involving environmental certification (flying in the hot and high conditions of Afghanistan), flying with under slung loads, use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and threat evasion techniques before they reach full theatre operating capability. This training will be supplied by a mix of Afghan and ISAF personnel.
The first students completed the course in September 2009 and have returned to Afghanistan and the last students are due to complete there training by the end of March 2010. Of the 27 students to sit the course only one failed to meet the required standard (a similar pass rate to the UK DHFS course). The student who did not pass is now involved in a ground role within the ANAAC. Initial feedback from Afghanistan is good and it is hoped the students will continue on to become instructors.
Mi-17-Mk1V / Mi-8MTV-1
To make operating the course possible QinetiQ had to acquire two Mil Mi-17 Hips, modify them to reach a standard that would allow them to be added to the UK military register and gain the expertise to both instruct on the type and also maintain the type.
Never before had an Eastern Bloc aircraft been operated on the UK Military registrar. This alone bought a number of technical challenges but to compound matters QinetiQ also had a tight schedule to adhere to.
Two Bulgarian Mil Mi-8MTV-1s (serial numbers 103M02 & 103M03) were indentified with low flying hours and put into deep maintenance by Lithuanian based Helisota. They also gained a number of modifications at the same time. Flight deck armour was added along with a defensive aids package. A radio kit was fitted that conformed to UK standards and the cockpit instruments had to be changed from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to a western Latin alphabet. Finally the ETPS paint scheme was applied.
“The aircraft are in a very similar configuration to the ones they will be flying back in Afghanistan. Armouring around the cockpit does change the handling characteristics of the aircraft. So by putting the armour on here they will be trained on a similar aircraft to they will be flying out there.” said Lieutenant Commander Neil Davidson.
The Mi-8MTV-1 designation was changed to Mi-17-Mk1V. The Mi-8 reference is applied to Russian domestic helicopters where as the Mi-17 is applied to export versions (although some Mi-8 were exported). This is simply a name change; both helicopters have the same configuration, engine and gearbox.
Both Mi-17s still do have Mi-8MTV-1 stencilled on the right hand side from its service with Bulgaria.
With this work complete and a new maintenance schedule worked out the type was accepted onto the UK military register by the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff. 103M02 was assigned ZB697 and 103M03 was assigned ZB698.
Helisota’s involved continued after the deep maintenance was complete by supplying training for the QinetiQ engineers on the Mi-17 and also sending a number of its own engineers to MOD Boscombe Down to assist with the any gaps in experience of operating this type.
When asked about the availability of the Mi-17 Charlie Ford Project Curium Project Manager said “They’ve been on a par with UK aircraft, in fact a little better”.
With the project reaching its completion at the end of March the two Mi-17s will be shipped over to Afghanistan and gifted to the ANAAC.
Special Duty Squadron Mi-17 Instructors
JHC formed Special Duty Squadron (SDS) to provide instruction on the Mi-17 with Wg Cdr Al Smith as the Officer Commanding (OC). Pilots from the three services joined SDS on a volunteer basis and received training on the Mi-17 from Concord 21. Upon completion of their training the Central Flying School in the UK extended the pilots’ previous instructor status on other types to the Mi-17.
Speaking to the SDS instructors it soon becomes obvious how much they have enjoyed working with the Mi-17. One instructor said he would love to take the Mi-17 with him on his next posting.
The view is shared with the QinetiQ staff who said that they weren’t optimistic when the project had started because of dealing with an unknown aircraft but had grown to love them.
The project had also allowed QinetiQ to experience how Russian hardware is built and operated. An experience that they found both useful and interesting.
But the most important aspect to the project is the 27 members of the ANAAC who have or will shortly return to Afghanistan and look forward to becoming combat ready and taking part in making their country a safe place. Project CURIUM have given them a great start in this aim.
I’d like to thank QinetiQ and JHC Special Duties Squadron for their assistance with this article.