In January 2010 three Czech Mi-171Sh helicopters were unloaded in Afghanistan and soon after started to fulfil tasks within the ISAF international task force. After many missions in former Yugoslavia the most difficult foreign deployment of the rotary section of the Czech Air Force was about to begin. Prior to their departure these helicopters underwent a significant upgrade at the LOM PRAHA s.p. state enterprise and achieved genuine compatibility with NATO standards which is still unmatched among other Mil helicopters within NATO.
The Czech helicopter contingent contributed to the NATO ISAF mission focused on supporting the ISAF involved troops during region stabilisation and fighting local insurgents and also on recovering local Afghan security forces. All three Mi-171Sh helicopters were operated from Sharana Forward Operation Base in Paktika province located some 200 km south of the capital city of Kabul. The unit gained the name Task Force Hippo, derived from the Mi-171 NATO Standard Coordinating Committee name of the helicopter – the Hip. In total, five helicopters were upgraded for the mission, with two remaining in the Czech Republic as a backup in case of damage to one of the deployed ships and also for conversion training of local pilots. The Czech Air Force at the time of mission start had significant experience with operations in Afghanistan.
The Czech Republic had previously donated six Mi-17 and six Mi-24 helicopters, which were overhauled in the Czech Republic and delivered to Afghanistan with a financial contribution from NATO Supreme Headquarters in Europe. All of them were used for local training of Afghan Army Air Corps personnel with the participation of several NATO member crews including Czech Air Force pilots and mechanics. Unlike this experience, the Mi-171Sh mission was not focused on training, but on support for ISAF operational units. Within two years the three helicopters have flown in total 2,763 flight hours and ferried over 9,000 persons and more than 330 tons of various materiel. In total, seven personnel rotations took place there and the Czech Air Force gained an incredibly valuable lesson allowing further significant growth of its capabilities. Unlike the previous deployment on the IFOR, SFOR and KFOR Balkan missions, the Afghan campaign presented real combat deployment with a high risk of armed enemy engagement in a hostile environment. The deployment was also difficult due to the character of the area with high altitude mountains, which is the most challenging environment for helicopters due to decreased performance.
Prior to the departure of the three helicopters, five ships underwent a major upgrade performed by the LOM PRAHA s.p. overhaul facility. Although all the Mi-171Sh were delivered just some three years prior to the mission, they were acquired to a slightly modernised standard not fully compatible with the NATO deployment operations. This is obvious, since the Russian manufacturer cannot have access to NATO standard technologies. But in spite of this, these helicopters are real work horses with superb performance, a bulky cargo cabin, low maintenance requirements and simple logistics including highest-level maintenance, fully performable by the aforementioned Czech company. There are currently more than 100 Mi-8/17/171 Russian origin helicopters operated in NATO countries with expected service till 2030 at least.
The upgrade was focused on the flight and navigation equipment and on safety. The former area was addressed by adding a new fully digital (the Mi-171Sh is still entirely analogue) Flight Management System allowing navigation task planning using pre-flight plans, post-flight debriefings and an in-flight digital moving map display with the option of viewing the position of various subjects of interest, including own forces etc. The navigation equipment was boosted by VOR/ILS/DME instruments allowing precision instrument navigation. The basic in-flight navigation was of course provided via the GPS global system. For easy communication, new NATO compatible radios with new intercom sockets were added and also a satellite communication device working with the Iridium satellite network for anticipated mountain terrain operations
In order to achieve maximum compatibility with NATO air traffic control, new transponders and IFF identifiers were installed. All these changes required significant redesign of the cockpit area. The original instrument boards with obsolete analogue gauges in part provided the space for four MFD screens allowing easy in-flight management and display of new functionalities. Unlike many other upgrades where extra devices are just added in free space, LOM PRAHA performed real integration, with complex redesign of the instrument boards. The result allowed an unchanged view from the cockpit but with full integration of new functionalities through MFDs and separate control boxes for some devices. Obviously, all original lighting, either external or internal, was replaced by NVG-compatible lighting allowing standard operations with NVG goggles. For flight debriefing and possible accident investigation new flight data and voice recorders were added as well.
Significant attention was paid to increasing the safety of the helicopter. With the Mi-171Sh being based on a 1960s design, there are many drawbacks in the helicopter defence concept. In order to protect the helicopters and their crews from hostile fire and its consequences, a brand new anti-missile defence suite was introduced. It consisted of five UV sensors covering the complex lower hemisphere of the helicopter and thus providing early warning in case of enemy fire of shoulder launched missiles, the most dangerous threat in Afghanistan at that time. The defence system was coupled with brand new flare dispensers allowing a decoy for the fired missile. For increased protection also, a new Infra-Red jammer was installed instead of the original obsolete Russian type. As part of passive defence, additional items were incorporated such as anti-leak external fuel tanks able to withstand a bullet hit, armoured panels and glass segments in the cockpit and bullet-proof Kevlar carpets on the floor and sides of the cargo cabin.
One of the safety matters was introduction of door gunners in each Mi-171Sh equipped originally with PKM machine guns. Their role is to observe the area around the helicopter and engage any threat they may identify. Although it may seem like just adding gun pintle mounts, the task was much wider. Before the decision for planned deployment in Afghanistan was made, there was no position like a door gunner in the Czech Air Force. Therefore, the weapons introduction required a brand-new team of flight crew members to be trained for day and night shooting from the helicopter. Currently the Czech Air Force is together with Poland the single “new NATO member” country having this position fully implemented in the structure.
According to OEM standards
Although the abovementioned Mi-171Sh modification may look like one of many upgrades, it is one of a kind. Unlike almost all other NATO countries and non-NATO states, the Czech Ministry of Defence had requested a modification fully compatible with OEM standards. Through such approach maximum safety and ease of operation were assured. This is why the project was consulted and supervised by the Moscow-based Mil Experimental Design Bureau, which owns the IP rights for the Mi-8/17/171 family and acts as an OEM. Mil company pilots even participated in the execution of flight tests of the first prototype, which took off into the air in December 2008 for the first time. Such wide cooperation is something absolutely rare and today even not conceivable due to sanctions and the general NATO and EU approach towards Russia.
The helicopters, still under OEM warranty at that time, were dismantled prior to the modification with one ship working as prototype and therefore with advanced progress of works. The modification was done in close cooperation with the OEM and Czech Air Force and Ministry of Defence experts. There were hundreds of comments from minor ones such as the position of the cockpit shades up to significant ones requiring hardware modifications. After the design reviews, all modifications started and subsequently ended in the first flight of the prototype followed by test flights of the other helicopters as well. Test flights were focused not only on the avionics functionality, but also on the defence suite efficiency, and included, for example, live firing of flares. Finally, the modifications were fully approved by the Russian OEM. Later on, the qualities of the improved type were recognized also by various NATO and especially US forces and additional upgrades including installation of the FLIR device or new pintle-mounted armament were introduced, although not yet live-deployed.
Russian helicopters in NATO
Although the current political situation imposes extra pressure to cut all ties and dependencies on Russia, Russian hardware is still widely present within NATO countries’ inventory. With respect to Mi-8/1/171 Hip helicopters, these are still heavily used by Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Croatian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish air forces with over 100 ships in active service. Two thirds of these were delivered before 1990 under different political circumstances, but the Czech and Croatian Mi-171Shs and Polish Mi-17-1Vs were delivered long after 2000 and their technical life will expire no sooner than 2030. Of all Hip helicopters the Czech Mi-171Shs are without a doubt the best equipped and the only ones upgraded in an OEM compatible way. Although their replacement is ongoing, as can be seen in Slovakia or Latvia’s current purchasing of UH-60s, their role is still inevitable not only for the air forces, but especially for the aviation industries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Poland, where overhaul plants are located. Their withdrawal from use will therefore affect not only the air forces, but also industry in general as newer types, either from Europe or US, will not bring about the same level of technology transfer.
Interviewed by: Jakub Fojtík
Photo: author and ISA