Despite being long-overdue a retirement, the RAF’s Puma medium support helicopter is still having its check-out date reviewed by the top brass.
The current Puma HC. MK 2 medium support helicopter has undoubtedly been one of the most popular aircraft ever used in service by the RAF. Operating under Joint Helicopter Command, “The aircraft is used in a variety of combat roles, including the tactical movement of troops, weapons, ammunition and stores on the battlefield, as well as the extraction of casualties and in response to medical emergencies” – according to the RAF’s website. The all-rounder has seen extensive use within military operations, demonstrating its reliability and adaptability again and again wherever it’s been needed. That may be why the RAF seems reluctant to let it go. As the old saying goes – ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. With military tech advancing at such a rapid pace, however, a chopper which is based on a 50-year-old design may have earned the right to step down and live out the rest of its days in less intensive, non-combat roles. Rumours have already begun circulating that Pumas stationed in RAF Benson are to be shipped out to find new service as search and rescue craft in Cyprus, as well as being tapped for training purposes in Brunei. “The out-of-service date for Puma is under continual review based on operational and non-operational commitments, which includes rotary-wing provision in Cyprus and Brunei,” stated the UK’s Ministry of Defence earlier this week. Clearly not wanting to confirm or deny any rumours, the MoD appears to be having a bit of trouble letting the old girls go.
Sooner or later, they’re going to have to bite the bullet though, with the New Medium Helicopter replacement for the Puma – as well as three other choppers – set to enter service from 2025. The programme was launched on an industry day back at the end of November and has seen major manufacturers scrambling over each other to secure the hefty contract. Lockheed Martin’s ‘Sikorsky’ manufacturing arm has been pushing Polish-made Blackhawks as a potential for the new chopper, despite Defence Ministers being historically against the craft back in 2009. “The Black Hawk helicopter’s defined military design, latest-gen systems, proven combat effectiveness and multi-mission capabilities make it best choice for the UK’s NMH requirement” Tweeted Lockheed Martin. With proven effectiveness in militaries around the globe, it sure is a strong contender to modernise the RAF’s helicopter fleet. Manufacturer Leonardo is also taking a shot at the Puma’s replacement, with the Yeovil-based company claiming their chopper hits “the sweet spot” when it comes to fulfilling the RAF’s requirements. Being sleek, fast and very manoeuvrable, Leonardo’s AW-149 rectifies some of the Puma’s historic shortcomings. It has a large cabin, a low centre of gravity (the Puma’s relatively high centre of gravity led to some unfortunate chopper-rolling incidents), as well as a wide track undercarriage to improve stability. Other manufacturers like Airbus are putting forward their designs as well, in the race-to-replace the MoD seems to have started. It would help though, to have an official retirement date set in stone for these manufacturers to aim for.