Royal Navy squadron in new helicopter design breakthrough

Topic: Fighting armsFleet Air Arm

A team from the Royal Navy’s ‘emergency service’ has saved the day – and potentially £20m – with a speedy fix for the Army.

The Service Modifications team at 1710 NAS has developed a system for the Army Air Corps Gazelle helicopter to be adapted to airlift casualties from the battlefield.

And within two days of the modification being fitted it was used to transport a critically-ill casualty to hospital in Canada.

The modification, which took seven months from start to finish, rather than the normal year to 18 months, involves aircraft engineers removing the co-pilot’s seat and controls of the small Gazelle to enable the pilot to transport a medic and a casualty on a stretcher.  

A plate is installed at the front of the cabin to enable a stretcher to be positioned the full length of the cockpit.

Each year the Army deploys to the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada, for live firing exercises but needed to provide a helicopter medical evacuation facility to cover the large prairie – 1,042 square miles – roughly the size of Dorset and three times the size of the Army’s normal training areas at Salisbury Plain.

The team at 1710 NAS first met the Gazelle Project Team in September last year to design, develop, trial and manufacture a full medical evacuation facility for the helicopter to use in April this year.  Such a contract with a commercial company could have cost up to £20m.

“This was an extremely challenging timeframe to deliver a unique capability in what is a very small area when one considers the size of a Gazelle,” said lead designer Dave Smith.

The design team introduced life-monitoring and life-support equipment normally found in a UK air ambulance as part of the modifications and trialled their designs with 667 Squadron Army Air Corps.

Mr Smith added: “The design team of Guy Pratt and Richard Dyke worked extremely closely with the users, including pilots and doctors, to ensure that it met their needs to give casualties the best chance of being recovered safely. 

“They prepared the new panels and inserts on the squadron’s Computer Aided Design network, produced models on our 3D printer and then worked with the workshops to manufacture trial kits as part of the rapid prototyping process.”

In addition to providing the design, 1710 NAS also write the installation instructions for the air engineers on the front-line unit. 

Leading Aircraft Engineering Technician Dan Bailey, who is new to the squadron, said: “This was my first modification and quite a challenge due to the timescale. 

“Having had training on how to write technical English, which is very different to normal prose, and as a former engineering supervisor on a helicopter squadron, I was able to put myself in the place of the technicians installing this in Canada and so I tried to make the instructions as clear and as easy to follow as possible.”

After obtaining clearance for the Gazelle Medical Evacuation Modification to be fitted to the aircraft, Lieutenant Matt Wakefield, Deputy Service Modifications Manager, said: “The entire team came together to deliver a fantastic capability in a very short time frame, saving millions of pounds for Defence and enabling our troops to train as realistically as possible whilst also being safe in the knowledge that if there is a battlefield injury, the best possible capability will be on hand to help.”

Often referred to as the Jewel in the crown of the Fleet Air Arm, the Portsmouth-based squadron was established In 2010 to recover, sustain and enhance Naval aviation and is comprised of Royal Navy, Army and RAF personnel along with civilians.

The squadron’s deployable Repair Teams travel the world to fix Ministry of Defence helicopters, while ships and squadrons send in material fractures and fuel samples to the scientists in the Materials and Monitoring cell.

This was an extremely challenging timeframe to deliver a unique capability in what is a very small area when one considers the size of a Gazelle.

Dave Smith