Navy's $100m chopper can't fly in bad light

By Tom Allard
March 19, 2005

Serious flaws have been uncovered in Australia's $1.1 billion squadron of Seasprite naval helicopters, rendering them unable to fly crucial missions.

Costing $100 million each - more than the latest stealth fighter - and arriving more than three years late, the helicopters cannot be used in murky weather when the pilots' external vision is impaired, the Herald has learnt.

They have been restricted to simple tasks, such as delivering stores and transporting passengers, and only when the weather is good. Military missions such as search and rescue and training simulations of difficult combat scenarios cannot be undertaken.

All up, defence and aviation sources said up to 40 deficiencies were exposed during testing.

The Herald has learnt that the navy bluntly told the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, in formal advice late last year that the Seasprites failed crucial tests and did not meet navy requirements.

Senator Hill said yesterday he had been kept informed about the project but would not comment further and was unable "to provide a copy of internal advice".

The Defence Department's $50 billion hardware purchasing plan has suffered serious delays and cost blow-outs in many areas, among the worst being the Seasprite. So bad are the problems, the Australian Defence College will use the Seasprite as a cautionary case study in its leadership and ethics course next year.

When the Seasprites were finally unveiled in 2003 Senator Hill hailed them as "arguably the most advanced maritime aircraft in the world" but the squadron, based at Nowra, is in tatters.

In response to written questions, the Defence Department told the Herald the Seasprites had not achieved certification for flight in conditions where the pilot's visual cues were reduced, technically called instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

The department said other problems had been uncovered and that the restrictions could continue into next year.

"Defence is working through a range of issues that are expected to be rectified or mitigated by the time a fully capable helicopter is accepted by Defence," it said.

The Seasprite started life as Vietnam War-era airframes mothballed by the US Navy. The Government bought them to turn into super helicopters, gutting the insides and fitting them with high-tech electronic weapon systems.

Last year it emerged that the US had tried to give the aircraft away to Greece, Turkey and Thailand as part of their aid program, only to be rebuffed.

Installing high-tech hardware in an old airframe and developing the right software has been fraught with difficulty and is responsible for the blow-outs.

Aviation and defence insiders said senior defence figures had ignored these risks and that technical deficiencies with the flight systems meant full air worthiness could not be met.

One insider familiar with the Seasprite tests said: "A military aircraft that is not able to operate IMC is a fascinating proposition. Just imagine if you are a downed pilot or a sailor washed overboard or on board a vessel in distress, hoping to be picked up by a search and rescue helicopter but you find out the aircraft can't take off because the weather is claggy. Next to useless would be one of the more moderate terms you would use."