LONDON — Royal Air Force plans to field an upgraded version of the Eurocopter Puma helicopter have been delayed until at least the middle of next year, according to Britain’s defense procurement and support minister.
The Ministry of Defence said that the crash of a civilian version of the Puma in France in July, which killed key Eurocopter flight test crew, was partly to blame for the delay.
“There have been some delays to aspects of the project and work is being undertaken to understand whether this will impact on fielding plans” Procurement Minister Philip Dunne admitted in a parliamentary written response today.
Dunne failed to specify the cause of the problem.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman later said that one of the reasons for the delay was the crash in the French Alps, which killed key Eurocopter test pilots.
“A review into the causes of the delay has not yet been complete, however, the Eurocopter air crash [in July] was a factor, as are other unexpected delays — mainly, work we had not expected has had to be done,” said the spokesman.
Eurocopter declined to comment.
Signed in 2009, the £339 million pound ($538.2 million) program to significantly update 24 Puma Mk 1 tactical transports operated by the British has seen the helicopter emerge with new engines, flight controls and other upgrades.
At one time, the life-extension program of the tactical transport helicopter was a candidate for the axe as part of the budget-cutting strategic defense review in 2010.
The first production standard aircraft undertook its maiden flight in September 2012 and 21 of the 24 helicopter’s in the program have either been delivered or are in the update program being undertaken at a Eurocopter factory in Romania.
Dunne said the MoD “currently expects to field the initial aircraft for training by mid-2013 and incrementally expand the capacity and capability of the Puma Mk2 force over the subsequent two years.”
When the deal was signed in 2009, it was expected the Puma Mk2 would enter service this year and reach full operational capability in 2014.
The procurement minister said the upgrade is still forecast to be delivered within budget.
British rotorcraft plans envisage tactical helicopter lift being provided by Boeing Chinooks and Mk2 Puma’s, while with the AgustaWestland Merlin machines, which are also operated in that role, will be being used moved over to provide amphibious lift for the Royal Navy’s Commando forces, as its Sea King capability is finally pensioned off.