Navy battles with Seasprite upkeep

17:00, Aug 27 2011
seaspritewide
SPARES HEADACHE: A navy Seasprite helicopter is prepared for flight aboard HMNZS Te Kaha in Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island.

The navy's  five helicopters, worth $350 million, are sometimes incapable of flying as the Defence Force struggles to maintain them in the face of rust and vibration damage.

A Ministry of Defence report says three Kaman SH-2G (NZ) Seasprite anti-submarine helicopters have to be flying at any one time. But last October only one could get in the air and earlier this year just two serviceable Seasprites were available.

The air force services the five machines with navy pilots and crew. But with No6 Squadron struggling to keep them flying, the number of hours the government requires them to fly has been slashed by a third.

New Zealand has the only particular model still flying, although Egypt has a land version and Poland's navy a similar version. That leaves New Zealand with helicopters expected to last another 10 to 15 years but without easily available parts.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp labelled the Seasprites "an orphan fleet" when on the opposition benches, but last week said they were safe.

"The aircraft are regarded by the air force and navy as very capable," he said. "I am confident, based on the assurances I have received, that safety is not the issue here."

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When the helicopter deal was signed in 1999 it was touted as a "steal". US manufacturer Kaman had stored their airframes in the Arizona desert before fitting them out for New Zealand. Soon after the deal the US Navy, which developed them in the 1950s, ditched Seasprites and scrapped its flight simulator, leaving New Zealand struggling to train pilots.

A report by the ministry's evaluation division says because of compounding problems and the need to keep the helicopters flying, the military is constantly deferring "operational level maintenance". The report said while each individual deferral might be valid on its own, they were creating a "bow-wave of deferred maintenance".

"A significant number of deferrals related to the repair of corrosion or vibration damage discovered during checks," the report said. While cumulative deferral might be considered safe, the report said it was reasonable to assume the "damage will worsen the longer it is left".

Damage was "being found in areas where such corrosion or damage has not been seen before", the report said. "Panels and structure not previously removed have to come off, uncovering new and unknown corrosion and vibration damage."

The air force said increasing work was a "major problem with the Seasprite" and corrosion a significant factor.

"There are strong and varied views about why the Seasprites are suffering increasing amounts of corrosion damage," it said, probably caused by a lack of awareness by staff, and training deficiencies.

The report said it was hard to get staff to go with the helicopters when posted at sea for six to eight months.

"This unwillingness to serve at sea results in No6 Squadron having difficulty retaining people with deep knowledge of the Seasprites."

Seasprites were ordered for the frigates Te Kaha and Te Mana, and also operate from the amphibious support ship Canterbury. The two offshore patrol ships, Otago and Wellington, can also operate them.

Air Vice-Marshall Peter Stockwell said the Seasprites were "absolutely safe to fly". The issue, he said, was managing the maintenance programmes when New Zealand had the only five operational machines in the air.

They were strong and safe aircraft and ideally suited for their naval role. Deferring maintenance was tightly controlled, and airworthiness was reviewed constantly. He said deferment was often necessary when the aircraft were on frigates at sea. "It is very carefully managed."

Sunday Star Times