LONDON — British Army Apaches are to be equipped with flotation devices to increase the safety of crews operating the attack helicopter from Royal Navy warships.
The British deployed the Apaches in anger from a warship for the first time during the Libyan campaign that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Now the naval Apache is becoming a regular part of British amphibious capabilities with the machine flying from a helicopter carrier in two naval exercises last year.
Britain is the only nation to operate the Apache in a naval role, although several nations use other attack helicopter types for amphibious duties.
The British have been toying with operating the potent Apache from maritime platforms for years, undertaking suitability tests onboard the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean in 2004. And while the Apache is already partially ready for maritime operations as it has manually folded main rotor blades, it also has a problem: It was never designed for naval operations and without some sort of flotation device would sink like a stone if it ditched at sea.
The MoD has awarded AgustaWestland a deal to find a fix for the problem.
“AgustaWestland has been contracted to undertake a feasibility study to investigate the design for an emergency flotation system for the Apache. The study is expected to be completed this spring,” said a Defence Ministry spokeswoman.
GKN Aerospace subsidiary FPT Industries has been involved in designing a system aimed at keeping the Army Air Corps machine stabilized and afloat long enough to allow the two-person crew to escape.
The Italian-owned helicopter maker undertook final assembly in the U.K. of the Boeing-designed Apaches in the 1990s and continues as coordinating design authority in the U.K.
Industry and military sources said that with funds available, a contract could be sealed this summer.
Other modifications are also being considered to enable the helicopter to operate more safely. A new cockpit jettison system could also be in the cards.
The spokeswoman said the MoD and the Pentagon were “jointly funding a technology demonstrator project to investigate an alternative to the current Apache canopy severance device that will substantially reduce the blast effect experienced by the aircrew if operated.”
The helicopter is scheduled for a big capability sustainment update later in the decade, but the maritime safety improvements are too pressing to wait that long.
One analyst said most, but not all, of the 66 Apaches in the British Army fleet would be fitted for but not with the flotation device.