PARIS --- Belgium’s recently-announced 40% cut in NH90 helicopter flight hours is not due to the excessive cost of the Airbus A400M, Airbus A330 MRTT or Lockheed F-35 aircraft coming online, but to Belgian Air Force staffing shortfalls made worse by deficient support by its manufacturer, according to the chief of the Belgian Air Force.
In an interview published June 29 by the Belgian daily L’Echo, Maj. Gen. Frederik Vansina said the NH90 has an availability rate of 30% to 40%, and costs €10,000-15,000 per flight hour, which make it unaffordable for his service.
The Belgian Ministry of Defence announced June 25 that it would reduce the annual flight hours of its four Troop Transport Helicopter (TTH) variants of the NH90 by 40%, from 1,000 hours to 600 hours. These helicopters were delivered in the early 2010s, and are due to attain Full Operational Capability in 2022.
“When it flies, it is a very decent helicopter that does its job,” Vansina said, “but it needs a very high level of logistical and technical support. A lot of personnel are needed to maintain it, and it needs a high volume of spare parts, which the manufacturer does not provide.”
Airbus Helicopters, which manufactures the TTH on behalf of prime contractor NH Industries, declined to respond to Vansina’s comments. “We do not comment on customers’ opinions,” a company spokesman said.
“I dare to say it: the manufacturer’s support is not adapted to the availability expected of a modern helicopter. We have an availability of 30% to 40%. With a mature helicopter that we have been operating for years, we should do better than that.”
Vansina added that “downtime, when you need to make modifications, is extremely long. Much longer than what is promised or planned by the manufacturer. In addition, there are upcoming modifications which will be extremely expensive.”
Belgium has a fleet of eight NH90 helicopters, including four TTH versions operated by the Air Force and four NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) naval variants operated by the Navy.
Vansina’s comments focus on the TTH version, which is simpler of the two NH90 variants. The Belgian Navy has not so far announced any similar cutbacks in the flight hours of its more complex NFH variants, but it would be surprising if it benefited from better product support than the air force.
Low availability has been a long-standing problem for most NH90 operators, with French NH90 fleets having similar availability rates to Belgium’s except when deployed on overseas operations, where a special effort is made to increase availability.
Both NH90 versions require 30 maintenance man-hours for each flight hour, French Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Christophe Prazuck told Parliament during a July 2017 hearing.