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Belgian NH90 Training: All Hands on Deck

Belgian pilots train with Dutch colleagues as their homeland works to expand its NH90's operational capabilities.

A Belgian helicopter pilot arrived in Den Helder, about 35 nm (65 km) north of Amsterdam. Flying above the North Sea just a short distance out of Den Helder’s harbor, he made approaches to practice deck landings on His Netherlands Majesty’s Ship Zeeland.

The Zr.Ms.Zeeland, translated as "His Majesty's Zeeland," hosted deck-landing training.Photo by Wim Das
Kenneth "Birdie" graduated with his owl badge after successfully completing deck-landing training.Photo by Wim Das

One can say that members of the Belgian and Dutch militaries are both friends and neighbors. They have been cooperating for more than 20 years. (In mid-April, leaders from the two nations met at the BENESAM Sint-Krius naval barracks near Bruges for the semi-annual meeting of their BeNeSam military cooperation council.)

Belgians operate with a crew of five, including a lead pilot, co-pilot, a sensor operator, a diver and a cab operator (who also operates the winch).

This Belgian pilot, Kenneth (who asked that we not use his last name for security reasons), was stationed at the De Kooy Airfield near Den Helder for several years as an exchange pilot. Now he sat in the right seat of a new Belgian NHIndustries NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) next to a Dutch instructor of the Dutch Helicopter Command (DHC) from Gilze-Rijen Air Base, about 20 nm southeast of Rotterdam.

Belgium now has four NH90 NFH variants in operation, and learning to fly them at sea and land on ships will be the country’s new challenge. It’s a big machine that you need to get used to, according to Kenneth (or “Birdie”).

A German observer assists Dutch crew members during the training exercise.Photo by Wim Das

Belgium has experience with deck landings, but with the much-smaller Alouette 3. Because of the NH90s’ larger size, decks on Belgian frigates had to be restructured to receive them. Flight decks were strengthened and lengthened and onboard hangars and flight deck operations rooms were enlarged. (Dutch ships have already trained with the NH90 for years.)

Helicopter crews and instructors from DHC participate in several weeklong exercises about six times a year to train for multiple qualifications. The Dutch navy also collaborates with a ship and its personnel.

Kenneth learned to fly the NH90 with the DHC 860 Squadron. He graduated fully qualified during his examination and received his “owlet,” a small orange badge that can only be worn by a qualified deck-landing pilot.

A flight deck officer directs an NH90 as it lands, a precise task affected by factors including wind and ship movement.Photo by Wim Das

In an ever-changing world with ever-present dangers of all kinds, there is an important need for uniformity of procedures and personnel cooperation. Belgium and The Netherlands, for example, signed agreements for the shared use of gear and operational techniques.

Both the Dutch and Belgian crews took part in deck-landing qualifications. The offshore patrol Zeeland on which the pilots trained is widely used for anti-piracy, anti-drug and border control operations.

The ship was updated in 2012 and now has many automated systems that can be operated with a relatively small crew. The central command officer (CCO) and helicopter directing officer (HDO) are crucial crewmembers in the process. The latter does all external communications with an incoming helicopter. A flight deck officer (FDO) provides physical direction. It is important for the ship and incoming helicopter to rely on each other. A landing takes about 2 to 3 min.

Helicopters landing on ship decks are anchored with a harpoon clip to prevent being blown away or shifting.Photo by Wim Das

It is not always easy to land a helicopter on a ship’s deck. The many factors to consider include wind and the movement of the ship caused by the water. The FDO gives instructions by feeling the ship’s movements for an appropriate landing opportunity. Before this moment, the FDO leads the pilots to a spot on deck exactly above a round grid. This is a kind of fuse-plate on which the NH90 can be secured by a harpoon clip to prevent being blown away by wind or shifting off the deck. Some times, canvas straps are used if the helicopter will remain parked on deck for a longer length of time.

The NH90 is a major expansion to a ship’s awareness. In earlier years, the Lockheed P-3 Orion from former Naval Air Station Valkenburg performed anti-submarine warfare in the North Sea and maritime patrol with ships. Due to budget cuts, these aircraft were taken out of service in the country. However, the NH90 provides some of these capabilities. The helicopter’s sensor package allows real-time survey at a height unattainable by the ship’s radar.

Building NH90 Operational Capability

Belgium’s navy is aiming to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) for maritime missions with its four NH90s by January, according to Belgian defense officials.

The service took delivery of its fourth NATO Frigate Helicopter version of the NHIndustries helicopter in August 2015, the month in which it also declared IOC for search and rescue operations with 40 Squadron at Koksijde air base on Belgium’s southwest coast. (The nation’s air force flies fourth Tactical Transport Helicopters variants of the NH90.)

Assuming the navy’s NH90s achieve IOC certification in January, they would replace Aerospatiale SA316 Alouette 3s aboard deployed navy frigates. R&WI