Heading Down Under: The first of 24 MH-60R helicopters for the Royal Australian Navy warms up at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, before lifting off for a training mission on May 7. (Christopher P. Cavas/Staff)
NAVAL AIR STATION JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA — Among a row of hangars and offices that house US Navy helicopter squadrons at one end of this sprawling base, one sign doesn’t quite fit in. “725 Squadron” reads the awning out front, with a conspicuously non-US, fisted crest above the doorway.
And in the hangar, although the squadron’s MH-60R helicopters look like others on base, a closer look reveals a distinctive difference: a kangaroo — the nearly-universal logo of Australia.
“We’ve got a product that’s the same as the Americans,” Cmdr. David Frost, commanding officer of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) helicopter squadron, said of his new helos. “The only difference at the moment is that it’s got a Kangaroo on it.”
Frost arrived at the air station in January 2013 with about 50 service members to form the genesis for his new command, created to fly and train on the MH-60R helicopter.
The RAN is buying 24 of the aircraft — known as “Romeos” — to fly from the new air warfare destroyers under construction in Australia. The aircraft, built by Sikorsky with mission systems from Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, represent a quantum leap in capability over the S-70B “Bravo” Seahawk and Sea King helos operated by the Navy.
“It’s got a huge capability in both the anti-submarine and the anti-surface warfare roles,” Frost said of the Romeo, noting it’s the first RAN helo able to fire a missile. The Romeo can carry up to eight Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, or lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes.
“It’s a phenomenal step forward in capability from the Bravo world,” said Lt. Mark Flowerdew, an aviation warfare officer (AWO) with years of experience operating Bravos.
While there are many similarities between Australian and US operating procedures, a key difference is the placing of the AWO in the helicopter’s left seat. US procedure is to operate with a pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, with a sensor operator in back. RAN Fleet Air Arm procedure is to have only one pilot, with the other seat occupied by the AWO mission commander.
The AWO, Flowerdew said, can handle the aircraft in an emergency. “We’re qualified to fly the aircraft to shore if the pilot is incapacitated,” he said.
The Romeo is much more of a combat aircraft than those it’s replacing, Frost said May 7 during an interview at Jacksonville.
“We purchased it purely for that role. There is no room in the back of this aircraft — we can’t do the utility stuff.” The RAN will assign utility and supply roles to its Eurocopter MRH90s, he said. “We’ll focus on that warfare role. That’s our mission.”
Frost, with a wealth of flying experience in other helicopters and the P-3 Orion, extolled the virtues of the Romeo.
“It’s a glass cockpit, almost an iPad-generation aircraft with its systems. The way it presents to you is not at all in an analog fashion — it’s a digital fashion and the way all the data is fused and brought to you in those cockpits allows you to make those tactical decisions. It’s very good from a man-machine interface perspective.”
With an advanced dipping sonar, the aircraft is nearly the equivalent of a P-3, Frost said. “Although there’s only three people in this aircraft, it can do things on the order of a P-3 with 13 people.”
One backseater with more than 10 years’ experience in the Bravo, Aircrewman Glenn Watson, agreed that the Romeo was a great leap forward. “This is far beyond anything we’ve had before,” he said. “The dipping sonar, the radar, every system in this thing is far beyond the Bravo. The clarity in the radar. The information we can receive in the aircraft. And the acoustic capability with the dipping sonar, as opposed to sonobuoys.”
While 725 Squadron’s members are learning to fly and operate the Romeo, they’ll become teachers beginning next year when the 112-strong unit returns to Australia.
“We’ll be instructing our own,” Frost said.
New Romeo support facilities are under construction next to Naval Air Station Nowra in New South Wales. The base, also known as HMAS Albatross, is the RAN’s only air station, home to all four naval helicopter squadrons.
This fall, Frost, his command, their four Romeos and one “Bromeo” — an old US Navy Bravo airframe converted into a non-flying Romeo for training purposes — will leave Florida for Australia, where the squadron next year will begin to train RAN aircrews. The helos will be transported aboard Australian C-17 transports, which can carry two at a time.
Australia is buying 24 MH-60Rs, with the last to be delivered in 2017. The new aircraft will go first to 725 Squadron, then to 816 Squadron, which flies Bravos but will become the fleet’s operational Romeo unit. The two squadrons will split the Rs evenly, ultimately operating 12 each.
Helicopter aviators with prior experience can get through the Romeo syllabus in about five to six months, Frost said. Those straight out of flight school need up to nine months.
The transition to the new aircraft has been greatly aided, Frost said, by operating in Florida alongside the US Navy, which made a similar switch in recent years.
“We’re learning from all of their lessons,” Frost said. “If we’ve got an issue, if we don’t understand something, I can just walk down that corridor and talk to people who are right here.”
That proximity of experience, he stressed, allowed the Aussies to build up their knowledge base quickly. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that in this time in Australia.”
All of 725’s aircrew have flown with the US Navy, many as crewmembers alongside Yankee counterparts.
“I embedded with Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadrons 72 and 46, actually flew as part of their crew,” Watson said. “I got to see how the Romeo was employed in a squadron environment.”
“Working with the USN in a mature training environment is fantastic,” Flowerdew agreed. “It was a great decision to be here and build this capability quickly and efficiently.”
“Every day we’re taking full advantage of having the people here,” Frost said. “Every time I ask for a door to be open, it just gets opened for me and they’re more than welcoming.”
Since the first Australian Romeos were delivered here in January, 725’s crews have been quickly building up flight hours, training around Jacksonville and on nearby US Navy ranges. Often practicing over the Pinecastle bombing range near Orlando, the unit is also scheduled for intense work this summer on the sophisticated Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center ranges in the Bahamas. The training, Flowerdew said, will include live-fire exercises with Hellfires and torpedoes.
Frost is eager to see the Romeo and its expanded capabilities make a difference in the RAN.
“I’m looking forward to getting it home to start playing with my Australian ships,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, making sure that helicopter becomes a weapon system of the ship.
“Our mission to fight and win at sea,” Frost said. “We will be able to contribute significantly to our fleet.”