A modern country can be measured by the levels of protection that a government can ensure to its population in case of emergencies and natural disasters. This is particularly significant when climatic and environmental conditions are difficult and sometimes extreme. This is the case for Norway which has confirmed its technological investments in the helicopter sector with 16 new Leonardo AW101 search and rescue aircraft for long-range and maritime operations.
Flying long distances in the Arctic Circle, temperatures often far below zero, strong winds, and thousands of kilometres of coastline, often met by rough seas – this is the operational context by which the Norwegians teams are called to work and the AW101, also known in the country as the SAR Queen, is the best support for this kind of search and rescue mission. Thanks to the aircraft’s equipment, manufactured, and assembled by Leonardo’s expertise, the AW101 can successfully carry out rescue missions in conditions that would have been prohibitive with previous aircraft.
Starting from 1st September2020, the first six helicopters delivered by Leonardo to Norway officially became operational from the Sola base, further to a ceremony with important local and national authorities. Furthermore, in 2021 it is expected that the Ørland and Banak bases will become operational. Norway has received six out of 16 helicopters. The remaining aircraft are being assembled, integrated and tested by Leonardo, at its site in Yeovil, UK. In the first month of service, the SAR Queen aircraft have undertaken missions in challenging weather conditions and inhospitable environments, flying for about 80 hours. The majority of the missions were SAR operations (including a night mountain rescue) and an emergency transportation.
The new AW101s are equipped with greater digital autonomy and more power to cover longer distances and larger areas. Factors which during a SAR (Search and Rescue) mission can make a big difference. A proven Sea King operator, Norway is gradually replacing its SAR fleet with its new AW101s. The Sea King has enabled Leonardo to maintain its leadership in the military rotorcraft market and the next iteration of the aircraft has often been seen as the AW101 helicopter, originally the result of a collaboration between the UK and Italy on the future replacement of the UK Royal Navy’s and Italian Navy’s Sea King fleets.
The AW101 is one of the most advanced Search and Rescue helicopters. This is supported by a full ‘anti-ice’ system, a fundamental feature particularly in a climate like Norway’s. The system works through sensors that measure how much ice is on the blades of the helicopter enabling the continuity of a mission.
Another important feature is the electronic anti-collision system developed by Leonardo. The device, based on laser technology and installed on the main rotor, covers the helicopter at 360 degrees and can detect multiple obstacles (such as rock walls, trees, electric pylons, infrastructures, walls or metal parts of oil platforms), when the aircraft is in a normal or static flight position, providing the pilot with visual and acoustic signs of the distance (with an approximation of centimetres), and therefore the risk level.
A further technological feature which ensures the safety of the mission, is the Osprey radar, developed and manufactured by Leonardo with an – Active Electronically Scanned Array antenna. The radar provides 360 degrees coverage thanks to three fixed electronically scanning antennas, one on the front and two on the side of the helicopter. In comparison with classic mechanical antennas, electronic ones offer faster scanning of the environment. Moreover, the fixed antenna compared to the mechanical one, significantly reduces maintenance costs and is lighter, which is important in flight operations.
The Norwegian AW101 is enriched by a Mobile Phone Detection and Location System, which enables the geolocation of missing people in extreme environments, if the mobile phone is turned on. The equipment detects the waves emitted by the mobile phone and that works like a transponder.
The helicopter’s cockpit is equipped with systems of synthetic representation of the real world with five large displays where pilots view 3D images, populated from pre-loaded maps installed on the on-board computer. During flight, obstacles will be reproduced even in low light and reduced visibility conditions, significantly increasing the pilot’s awareness of the operational situation.
The management of the comprehensive technological apparatus is twofold: on one side there is the pilot and co-pilot, on the other side is a mission console developed by Leonardo which is used by research activity operators. These are the main collectors of the information coming from the devices, and the pilots have the same information on the cockpit display. This allows for faster and more effective communication between crew members to increase safety and heighten the success rate of the mission.
Another feature that makes the AW101 ideal for SAR missions throughout Norwayis the capacity, managed by the onboard computer, to remain stable during rough seas and strong wind conditions, thanks to its automatic stability corrections, which means it does not requireany pilot intervention on flight and attitude controls. Thanks to this feature the AW101 can carry out a recovery mission whilst keeping the aircraft stationary during the delicate phase of the winching – which is the hooking of the person and transporting on board. Another strength of the AW101 is the capacity: its dimensions (27 m3 ) allow the carrying of over 50 standing passengers, which makes it very effective in natural disasters or major accidents involving people .
As part of this partnership an infrastructure for AW101 crews was opened in Norway (and also in other countries), where pilots are trained on flight simulators, co-developed by Leonardo. The simulators can duplicate both flight and the mission experience for pilots and rescue operators. The simulator is certified to Level D standards, which means that one hour of flight time on the device is considered the equivalent of a one hour real helicopter flight, because the hydraulic and mechanical tools faithfully duplicate the helicopter’s reactions and the physical sensations transmitted to the crew in a multiple operational context. It is therefore possible to carry out flight training and missions in absolute safety, with considerable savings in terms of fuel and maintenance. Moreover, the crew can train not only to fly on the new helicopter but also how to carry out specific missions, and learn how to manage risks and unexpected events.
Another important achievement of the AW101, specifically when considering the current pandemic situation, is that it was the first helicopter in the world to transport patients in biocontainment stretchers, these completely isolate infected cases from the external environment and from the medical staff.
Taking into account all these technological innovations, it means that the crew onboard an AW101 engaged in SAR operations have the full technical level of skills and information to manage the research and geolocation of a missing person: a decisive leap in quality assistance to the population in critical conditions, in the respect of all safety issues.