Military helicopters, regardless of their various functions and missions today, were designed and built to do one thing well. And that is to be able to land and take off at the smallest space possible, unlike their fixed-wing cousin that requires long, expensive and time-consuming to build concrete runways before any operation can be mounted.
With the capability to land on unprepared land surfaces, helicopters earned the admiration of various militaries in the world, who set about to acquiring the rotary-wing aircraft and attaching it to their forces for scouting or reconnaissance, gunfire spotting and support, medical evacuation, troop and cargo transport, and even close air support, to name some of the missions planners have made for this small and yet highly functional flying machine.
In the Philippines, various models of the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters have proven their worth in operations against insurgents and terrorist threats since the first units of these then brand-new rotary-wing aircraft were acquired by the Philippine military on March 29, 1969.
The Huey has a maximum speed of 127 mph, or 204 kph and a range of 318 miles (511 km) and it is capable of carrying or transporting 9,500 pounds (4,309 kg).
The ease of operating and maintaining the Huey in PAF colors had generations of military pilots flying the various models of the reliable UH-I during their stints in the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
Be it flying troop insertions in hostile territory, returning these soldiers back to their bases, evacuating them when wounded, or resupplying them in the event of prolonged encounters, or using its machine guns when these personnel needed more fire support, the venerable UH-I seems destined to remain an immortal in the PAF.
At its peak, the PAF is believed to have operated between 30 and 50 units of Huey helicopters in various configurations.
PAF gets initial ‘Black Hawk’ fleet
BUT even legends like the Vietnam war-era Huey grow old, so PAF has decided to look and gradually replace its existing Huey fleet with the Sikorsky UH-60 “Black Hawk” manufactured by Polish firm PZL Mielec.
The Polish variation now in PAF service is known as the S-70i, of which 16 were originally acquired for $241 million in 2019.
The first batch of six helicopters was delivered in November 2020, followed by the second batch of five in June 2021 that was formally accepted, turned over and blessed in October of that same year.
The last batch of five was delivered on November 8, 2021, and formally accepted by the PAF on December 3, 2021. However, one of the initial six units delivered crashed on June 24, 2021, while on a night-flying exercise.
The S-70i’s in PAF service are capable of speeds of 224 mph (361 kph), a range of 290 miles (460 km) and are capable of carrying 22,000 pounds (9,979 km).
Aside from their military missions, S-70i’s in PAF service were utilized to transport relief supplies and rescue personnel to areas heavily hit by typhoons and other calamities in recent years.
Black Hawk helicopters were also tasked to transport Covid-19 vaccines in geographically isolated areas during the government’s massive vaccination campaign aimed at defeating the dreaded disease.
Additional 32 Black Hawks for Air Force
DUE to this sterling service in disaster relief, former Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on February 22, 2022, signed the contract with PZL Mielec, calling for the acquisition of 32 more S-70i units for the PAF.
“This is a continuing relationship between our countries. The PAF is very happy with the Black Hawk helicopters,” he said.
The contract is worth $624 million and comes with an integrated logistics support and training package for pilots and maintenance crew.
“The delivery of these helicopters will start on CY [calendar year] 2023 (five units), while the remaining ones will be delivered in three batches as follows: CY 2024, second batch (10 units); CY 2025, third batch (10 units); and CY 2026, last batch (seven units),” Lorenzana said.
The then DND chief issued the Notice of Award for PZL Mielec for the 32 Black Hawk helicopters on December 28, 2021. Once deliveries are completed, the PAF will have around 47 S-70i units, giving it more leeway to retire some of its helicopters that have been too long in service like the Huey.
Black Hawk training with US
AND with the PAF poised to get more S-70i Black Hawks in the coming years, the Air Force is looking to have more training opportunities with the United States Army Pacific Command (USARPAC). This was among the matters discussed by PAF and USARPAC officials during a meeting last February 21, 2022.
“Discussed are the possible subject matter expert exchanges (SMEEs) and training on helicopter operations, particularly the Black Hawk and other SMEEs, which will benefit both parties,” the PAF said.
Army eyes Japanese Huey for disaster relief missions
AND while the PAF is poised to retire some of its elderly Huey helicopters with the arrival of the brand-new S-70i’s, the Philippine Army (PA) is expected to boost its humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capabilities following the pledge of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) to provide it with a number of UH-IJ utility helicopters last December.
“The JGSDF pledged to transfer UH-1J utility helicopters to the PA through a government grant. This was announced during a side-bilateral meeting between the two Armies during the first-ever Japan-Philippine-US Trilateral Key Leaders’ Engagement at Camp Asaka, Tokyo, Japan, on December 11, 2022,” PA spokesperson Col. Xerxes Trinidad said in a news statement.
The donation of these UH-1J helicopters is expected to be received two to three years from now.
The UH-IJ is manufactured by Japan’s Fiji Heavy Industries. Trinidad said the donation will significantly boost the capabilities of the Army Aviation Regiment in the field of HADR, medical evacuation, transport of personnel and supplies, and for damage assessment flights in times of national emergencies and calamities.
In the same meeting, PA chief Lt. Gen. Romeo S. Brawner Jr. discussed with JGSDF chief of staff Gen. Yoshida Yoshihide potential areas of military cooperation to include capability development, training and exercises, as well as defense materiel assistance.
The PA chief also expressed hope that this nascent partnership would bring about mutually beneficial outcomes for both the PA and JGSDF.
“As we all know, the Philippines and Japan are within the Pacific Ring of Fire and we experience so many disasters every year. By collaborating, all of our Armies will be able to cooperate on ensuring that our people are safe as we face the various calamities that come to our land every year,” Brawner said.
Image credits: Philippine Air Force, AP