French Navy Revamps Its Helicopter Fleet

 - May 7, 2020, 5:35 AM
A French navy Flottille 35F crew poses with one of the squadron's six SAR-configured AS 365N helicopters during recent trials aboard the frigate La Fayette. (Photo: Ministère des Armées)

In late April the French navy conducted the first deployment of an Airbus AS 365N Dauphin helicopter to a frigate. A single aircraft and seven sailors from the navy's Flottille 35F squadron embarked aboard the La Fayette for a week of evaluation while the vessel sailed near Toulon, clearing the search and rescue (SAR) version of the Dauphin for service at sea in advance of the acquisition of new AS 365Ns for the role.

The Dauphin is adopting the new small ship's SAR duty as part of the navy’s efforts to provide an interim capability between the 2019 retirement of the Alouette III helicopter and the introduction to service of the Airbus H160M Guépard, which is expected to be delivered from 2028.

The initial detachment of the AS 365N was made during La Fayette’s pre-deployment trials following a refit. To prepare the helicopter for at-sea operations a number of marinization modifications were made in a program that first took shape in 2013. Considerable efforts were made by both the squadron and the ship's company to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection during the evaluation.

Headquartered at Hyères-Le Palyvestre in southern France, Flottille 35F operates six of the AS 365Ns on public service duties, providing shore-based SAR cover since 1999 from the home base and detachments at civilian airports in Cherbourg, Le Touquet-Paris Plage, and La Rochelle-Île de Ré. The squadron also flies two AS 365N3+ helicopters out of a base on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. Primarily, they serve an SAR role, but they can also undertake fire-fighting missions. Finally, it has three SA 365F Dauphins that have been flown since 1990 in the “Pedro” plane-guard rescue mission aboard navy aircraft carriers.

New equipment is arriving in the shape of 12 AS 365Ns under lease from French operator Héli-Union in partnership with DCI. They will undergo marinization modification prior to entering service in late 2020. The lease lasts for 10 years and will adequately cover the capability gap created by the retirement of the Alouette III. Since 2018 the MN has also leased four AS 365N3s from Belgian operator NHV to serve alongside EC120s for training duties with the Escadrille 22S training center at Lanvéoc-Poulmic.

Also known as the Ecole de Spécialisation sur Hélicoptères Embarqués (ESHE, embarked helicopter school), Escadrille 22S is expected to receive four Airbus H160s on lease from a consortium consisting of Airbus, Babcock (the launch customer for the civilian H160), and Safran Helicopter Engines. The deal was announced on January 31, and is due to run for 10 years from 2022.

The H160s will be operated on training and SAR duties from Lanvéoc, and also will provide an introduction to the full military H160M version, of which the navy is to receive 49. With a first flight expected in 2023, the H160M is slated to replace all Dauphins in French navy service.