The helo-dunker in operation at Luni-Sarzana
A 5º Grupelicot SH.90 flies over the San Venerio lighthouse on the island of Tino, some 9 miles (14 km) south-west of Luni
5º GrupElicot at Luni was the first and is currently the only MMI unit equipped with the new SH.90A helicopter. Having formed at Luni-Sarzana on 1st November 1969 equipped with the Agusta-Bell AB.47J, the much improved Agusta-Bell AB.204AS arrived in 1971, supplementing the existing AB.47G & J models and also the Sikorsky SH-34 SeaBats. A further jump in capability took place in November 1976 when the Agusta-Bell AB.212ASW began entry into service with the unit. Following delivery of the first five SH.90As to the unit, the first SH.90 'Step B' was delivered on 8th November 2013.
One of the earlier AgustaWestland EH.101-ASH helicopters delivered to the MMI powers up its engines prior to a mission
After an over-water mission the helicopters use the wash-rack at Luni to rid the airframe of any corrosive salt-water
The Thales 360°European Navy Radar (ENR) is clearly visible on the underside of this SH.90
Having operated the venerable SH-3D Sea King for nearly 20 years, the introduction of the AgustaWestland EH.101 into MMI service saw 1º GrupElicot once again take a major step-up in capability when the helicopter entered service with the unit in 2002. Three different versions of the EH.101 are currently in service with the MMI, these being the Anti-Submarine & Anti-Surface Warfare (ASW/ASuW) version, the utility/transport (ASH) version and the Helicopter Early Warning (HEW) version.
Also located at Luni-Sarzana is a CAE manufactured EH.101 simulator. Delivered in 2011, the full-mission flight simulator (FMFS) and rear crew trainer (RCT) provides a complete training environment for EH.101 crews of all versions, enabling both student pilots and experienced crews to familiarise and maintain efficiency with the aircraft. In addition, it allows crews to practice emergency cockpit procedures, night-vision goggle training, ship deck landings and tactical mission training. The RCT part of the simulator mirrors the rear cabin of the ASW/ASuW version of the EH.101 and is used to teach and maintain tactical crews in the operation of all the sensors, avionics and software systems in the helicopter. The FMFS and RCT can both be used independently, or can be networked to offer a realistic mission training environment for the MMI's EH.101 pilots and sensor operators. Unlike EH.101 crews, the SH.90 crews at Luni-Sarzana do not benefit from having a simulator on base and therefore have to use one of AgustaWestland's simulators.
As the aviation element of the Marina Militare Italiana (Italian Navy), the Aviazione Navale (Naval Aviation) operates from three main air bases located at Grottaglie, Catania and Luni. The most important aviation programme within the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI) currently is the introduction of the NH Industries SH.90 helicopter to the fleet. The MMI has 56 SH.90s on order, ten of which will be the Tactical Transport Helicopter (MH-90A) version and 46 the NATO Frigate Helicopter (SH-90A) version. Having been ordered as a direct replacement for the ageing Agusta-Bell AB.212 fleet, which has already seen its number reduced due to the earlier introduction of the AgustaWestland EH.101, Jetwash Aviation Photos was invited to Maristaeli Luni-Sarzana, located approximately 6 miles (10Km) south-east of La-Spezia to see how the introduction of the new helicopter is progressing with 5º Gruppo Elicoterri (GruElicot), as well as getting an opportunity to spend some time with 1º Gruppo Elicoterri (GrupElicot) and their fleet of EH.101s.
Pre-flight checks are carried out on a 5º GrupElicot SH.90A
A 5º GrupElicot SH.90 seen from the Luni-Sarzana control tower
Luni-Sarzana also has what is known a "helo-dunker". The building that houses it contains a large swimming pool with the helo-dunker being used for underwater escape training. A mock-up of a helicopter cockpit and cabin is suspended from a large steel girder and can be plunged into the pool and then flipped over in a variety of positions. It is used to train crews to escape from a helo in an upside down position after impacting with the water in a simulated accident. At least once a year all the flying crews of the MMI use the dunker to test their ability to escape from their harness, breath underwater using an individual breathing apparatus and escape to the surface in a controlled manner. Luni-Sarzana’s helo dunker is also used by NATO partner-nations and other Italian Armed Forces.
A Marina Militare SH.90A hovers at low-level off the Italian coastline
The Step B configuration features a range of significant advancements in mission capability over the 'Step A' version, including systems integration for both air-to-surface missiles such as the MBDA Marte Mk./2S and torpedoes, plus an advanced satellite and encrypted communications, radar and avionics capability. The five previously delivered SH.90A MOC (Meaningful Operation Capability) standard aircraft will be retro-fitted to bring them up to the final configuration during the course of 2014. The SH.90A is designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare/anti-surface warfare (ASW/ASuW) operations and unit strength at present consists of 9 helicopters, one of which is presently at Frosinone on upgrade. Plans are that another airframe will be delivered in June and a further three before the end of 2014, bringing the unit's complement up to thirteen.
Inside the 5º GrupElicot hangar. Photo right shows the folded main rotor on the SH.90
Luni-Sarzana air base has a relatively short history in aviation terms, construction of the air base commencing in the 1960s in an area adjacent to the existing small airfield. The base became operational on 1st November 1969 with the establishment of 5º Gruppo Elicoterri (GrupElicot) equipped with the Agusta-Bell AB.47J. In May 1971, 1º Gruppo Elicoterri moved in from Catania-Fontanarossa, Sicily with their Sikorsky SH-34s, both units remaining in residence to this day. The main role of Maristaeli Luni-Sarzana is to provide logistical support, training and standardisation of crews for the two GrupElicot and to support ship-embarked aircraft and those deployed in operational theatres. The main task of the two Grupelicot is to maintain the operational readiness of air and maintenance crews and their aircraft, whose roles involve them operating primarily in the anti-surface & anti-submarine roles, together with supporting the San Marco Regiment.
The SH.90 looks very sleek with the undercarriage retracted
AgustaWestland EH.101-ASH; The first four EH.101-ASH delivered to the MMI were fitted with a night vision goggle (NVG) compatible cockpit, automatic folding tail and main rotors and a rear cargo ramp. The last four ASH also introduced a Selex satellite communications suite, UHF/VHF radios, enhanced identification friend-or-foe (IFF) and a FLIR Systems forward looking infrared sensor. The last four delivered also have fast-roping equipment and provisions to carry a Galileo APS-717(V) weather and navigation radar and a Selex laser obstacle avoidance and monitoring system. For CSAR operations the 101-ASH can be equipped with a Tadiran Spectralink airborne search & rescue system. The self-protection suite comprises an Elettronica ELT/156X(V4) radar warning receiver, Selex/EADS MILDS AN/AAR-60 missile launch detection system, RALM 01/V2 laser warning receivers, as well as both chaff and flare dispensers. The aircraft can also be fitted with 12.7mm machine guns mounted on the rear ramp and starboard cargo door, or two window-mounted Dillon Aero M134 7.62mm mini-guns. All 101-ASH are capable of carrying up to 30 fully equipped troops, or up to 5.5 tonnes as an external underslung load. The later aircraft on the inventory can be easily identified from the earlier deliveries by the FLIR and radar configured nose profile. The MMI EH.101s are powered by three General Electric T700-T6A turbo-shaft engines giving it a range of some 600 Nautical Miles and a 5.5 hour endurance capability.
Mission over and a view of Luni-Sarzana after our air to air sorties with 1º & 5º GrupElicot on 21st May 2014
Visible on the main ramp are two SH.90s, with the Guardia Costiera facility visible centre right
#MM81635 shows the radar-configured nose profile of the later EH.101-ASHs delivered to the MMI
The cockpit and rear sensor systems operator's console in the SH.90
Our AgustaWestland EH.101 returns to Luni
We would like to thank the following for their assistance in the making of this article;
Cmdr. David Fossati (Maristaeli Luni)
CdTe. Stefano Dell'Alba (Commander Luni-Sarzana)
Alessandra Melchiorre (MMI Public Affairs, Rome)
Francesca Maggi (Defence Attaché, British Embassy, Rome)
The personnel of 1º GrupElicot and 5º GrupElicot
SH.90A '3-08' about to land at Luni-Sarzana
Currently operating a fleet of eight AgustaWestland EH.101-ASH (amphibious assault helicopter) versions, 1º GrupElicot was formed on 1st August 1956 at Catania-Fontanarossa, Sicily flying the Agusta-Bell AB.47G helicopter. The unit was later equipped with both the SH-34G & J models of Sikorsky's SeaBat and also the AB.47J, all of which supplemented the existing AB.47Gs. 1º GrupElicot moved to Luni-Sarzana on 13th May 1971 and was the first MMI unit to re-equip with the Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King, a helicopter that provided a huge advancement in capability at the time. The unit also had the distinction of being the first to embark on the then new aircraft carrier ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1985.
Marina Militare Italiana
Marina Militare SH.90A at low-level
So as to provide compatibility with the service's EH.101 helicopters, the MMI selected the General Electric T700-T6E1 turbo-shaft engine to power the twin-engine SH.90. The Goodrich fly-by-wire flight controls provide a much more stable platform than the older AB.212 and allows the flight crew to focus more on the actual mission rather than maintaining stable flight control. The Thales avionics system is based on a dual MIL-STD-1553B digital data-bus and the cockpit has five 8in×8in multi-function, colour liquid crystal displays for flight, mission systems and maintenance data, whilst a Honeywell-Primus 701A weather radar is also fitted. The avionics package also includes the Thales TopOwl helmet-mounted sight and display which has a 40° field of view. A self-protection suite from EADS includes an AN/AAR-60 MILDS missile approach warning system, Thales threat warning equipment (TWE) with integrated radar warning and laser warning receivers, and MBDA Saphir-M chaff and flare dispensers. The SH-90 is equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system mounted in the nose, a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) and an ELAC Nautik helicopter long-range active sonar (HELRAS). The Thales European Navy Radar (ENR) 360° inverse synthetic aperture surveillance radar is mounted under the nose. The IFF (identification friend or foe) is a Thales TSC 2000 and a Link 11 secure data-link is included in the communications package. The weapons fit includes sonar buoys, two Marte Mk.2/S anti-ship missiles, two Eurotorp MU90 lightweight torpedoes and can be fitted with two door-mounted Dillon Aero M134 7.62mm mini-guns.
An SH.90 formates behind our EH.101 as we follow the Italian coastline
The control tower at Luni is fairly basic by today's standards and controls flight operations for both the MMI and Guardia Costiera
AgustaWestland EH.101 #MM81493 skirts the Italian coastline
The CAE flight simulator for the EH.101 at Luni
EH.101 flight deck
The MMI has eight EH.101-ASH versions in the inventory and as previously mentioned all are assigned to 1º GrupElicot. Unlike the HEW and ASW/ASuW versions the ASH benefits from a folding rear cargo ramp, allowing 1º GrupElicot to perform a large array of missions for the MMI, including Search & Rescue (SAR), civil protection and anti-immigration duties, counter terrorism and anti-piracy duties on oil platforms and cruise ships and general transport/support duties. Another operation performed by 1º GrupElicot is to provide support to the 'Operations Group Commandos' for Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) missions and also to support the 'San Marco' Regiment (Italian Marines).
#MM81633 is one of the later EH.101-ASH delivered to the MMI
The sub-type is identifiable by the FLIR and radar-configured nose profile
Ground crew tow a 5º GrupElicot SH.90 to the flightline on 20th May 2014
NH Industries SH.90A; The SH.90 as it is known in MMI service, is the Italian version of the NH.90NFH (Naval Frigate Helicopter) and is manufactured by a consortium of Eurocopter, AgustaWestland and Fokker, with the MMI SH.90s being produced at the AgustaWestland facility at Venezia-Tessera. The composite airframe and fly-by-wire technology provides a huge step-up in capability over the AB.212 that it is replacing within the MMI and this was the reason that the 'MOC' version was introduced into service early. Early introduction before the full capability 'Step B' version was available allowed both aircrew and maintenance personnel to integrate the aircraft into service without causing further delay, resulting in the helicopter entering full operational capability earlier than it would have otherwise (cont'd).
Air to air with 1º GrupElicot and one of their EH.101-ASH over the Ligurian Sea
The downwash from the EH.101 causes a huge amount of disturbance on the sea
This is something the crew have to very aware of when conducting operations close to the water
Our SH.90 (#MM81583 coded 3-07) awaits us on the ramp at Luni, prior to a mission on the morning of 21st May 2014
The rear loading ramp of the EH.101, which is unique to the ASH-version