Life after Lynx: unleashing the Wildcat
Image credit: Ministry of Defence
As we say goodbye to the Lynx, the world’s fastest helicopter, E&T looks at the cutting-edge tech of its next-generation reincarnation, the Wildcat, and assesses the future of multi-role capability helicopter aviation.
The iconic Lynx helicopter, backbone of the British Army and the Royal Navy alike, took a final flypast across the skies of southern England this year, ending in a V-shaped ‘air procession’ along the River Thames in central London to mark its formal retirement from a career spanning some 40 years of active service.
Introduced into service in 1978 as a multi-purpose military helicopter, this twin-engine rotorcraft was already ahead of its time with its loop-the-looping aerobatics combined with a formidable reputation as a tank-busting, anti-armour, search-and-rescue, reconnaissance and anti-submarine battle horse.
Over 450 Lynx helicopters were built and the twin-engined jet turbine model was made in several variants, including a Navy version with foldable rotors, a tricycle undercarriage and a deck restraint system to allow it to operate from destroyers and frigates. The Lynx has supported the Army on active service in Bosnia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and has been operational in all climates from Southeast Asia to Northern Ireland via Antarctica and has taken its place in every major British military operation over the past 40 years.
Perhaps one of its greatest claims to fame was in 1986 when a specially modified Lynx with a set of advanced experimental rotors set an absolute speed record of 400.87km/h (216.45 knots, 249.09 mph), an achievement that still stands as the official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale record.
However, it’s a poignant fact of life that times move on, technology evolves and even the Lynx, that great bastion of the skies, can be subsumed by the rapid pace of technological change. For Lynx, the journey from analogue to digital proved to be one flight too far, setting it upon its final course towards its decommission from British military life and paving the way for the Wildcat’s arrival.
Age and circumstance might have finally caught up with Lynx, but Wildcat is set to leverage everything that modern-day cutting-edge aviation tech can design into it, sporting a platform that features an array of innovative kit, enabling it to fight, coordinate, communicate and see the combat zone more precisely than just about anything in the sky or on the ground. As Lt Col Allan Bambridge of the Joint Helicopter Command explains: “The main differences are in its capabilities and technical advancement. Lynx was an anti-tank battlefield helicopter with a missile system designed to defeat enemy armour. Wildcat is a battlefield-manned reconnaissance capability providing real-time situational awareness to the commander on the ground with the ability to provide close air support to troops if required.”
While the two helicopters share broad similarities in appearance - a new tail rotor aside - only five per cent of their components are interchangeable, with Wildcat designed from the outset to maximise all that modern electronics can provide, housed inside an entirely digital environment. As such, Wildcat is heavily modernised and adapted to gain new attributes and functionality with more advanced avionics, a heavier payload rating and the capability to operate at higher altitudes.
The Wildcat is the only dedicated ISTAR helicopter. For the uninitiated, ISTAR stands for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance and, when combined, forms a practice that links several battlefield functions together, facilitating a combat force in employing its sensors and managing the information gathered. This process of integrating the intelligence process with surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance tasks improves situational awareness and, consequently, decision making.
As Lt Col Bambridge comments: “With its digital cockpit, integrated systems and modern engines, Wildcat is a technologically advanced aircraft offering a state-of-the-art manned reconnaissance capability to the Field Army and is optimised for supporting units on the ground with its speed, reach, find-and-strike multi-role capabilities.
“Its digital display provides increased awareness of the battlefield, offering information to the commander and ground call signs and its modern engines offer greater power and lift capacity, allowing the aircraft to fit a small team of troops in the back and deliver them to remote areas in the battlefield,” he adds.
Alongside its technical wizardry, Wildcat has a more powerful engine, safely ensconced within a more robust fuselage, allowing it to brave the most extreme conditions all year round. Its Maritime Attack version can carry Sting Ray torpedoes, a door-mounted 0.5" heavy machine gun and new light and heavy variants of the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon Missiles. When at sea, this bad-ass provides its Navy commanders with a flexible attack capability which can be deployed to tackle a range of threats from force protection to counter-piracy.
The platform formally entered service in 2014, but actually saw its first operational deployment in 2018 when 661 Squadron, 1 Regiment Army Air Corps, travelled from its base at RNAS Yeovilton to Estonia to support Nato’s enhanced forward presence.
A bout of electronic warfare training in Cumbria, followed by live-firing practice in Scotland - which saw Wildcat’s door-gunners operating their 50-calibre M3M machine guns - meant that the air and ground crews were fully prepared and eager to get going for their very first tour of duty. With a focus on developing Estonian Defence Forces’ capability, the deployment saw 661 Squadron conducting joint multinational and combined arms training exercises under the control of commander British forces. As such, Wildcat had the opportunity to operate alongside the Nato Enhanced Force Presence Battlegroup together with carrying out close work with Allies in the region.
The Estonia tour gave crew a taste of what it’s like to use and maintain Wildcat in real operational conditions and, significantly, it allowed them to demonstrate to their own commanders the extent of Wildcat’s until then-unknown capabilities. Its potential as a control platform for air and ground forces was revealed through its impressive ISTAR recce and communications systems, which have the capability to operate ahead of other assets, instantaneously feeding back critical information. With aircrew that are fully trained reconnaissance pilots, their ability to read and judge a situation, directing ground-based weapons or aerial assets based on that expertise, provides a big leap in what the Squadron has been used to delivering, with the potential to become the reconnaissance specialists for the wider Army. As the extent of its capabilities are further revealed with future missions, Wildcat has the potential to become a driver of change, transforming its role on the battlefield in the process.
Flying in to Estonia alongside the aircrew as firm members of the Wildcat entourage was a supporting ground crew, including experts from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). The crucial role of maintaining and repairing Wildcat, like Lynx before it, falls to REME aircraft technicians, a function and responsibility that’s no less critical than the aircrew that fly them.
Within each squadron is a REME Light Aid Detachment (LAD) - an engineering section - whose purpose is to maintain the day-to-day life of the helicopters, providing the aircrew with a safe and serviceable aircraft at short notice. Although there hasn’t been a significant change to their role in the evolution from Lynx to Wildcat, REME technicians have undertaken additional training on maintenance and repair procedures for Wildcat due to the advanced technical nature of the aircraft.
Describing their work, Sergeant Michael Tombs, an SNCO (senior non-commissioned officer) working within 661 Squadron’s Wildcat LAD, explains: “The REME’s role is the same across Army Aviation regardless of aircraft type: we maintain the aircraft, conduct repairs if they become unserviceable, as well as carry out preventative maintenance in accordance with Aircraft Technical Information.”
Of the routine maintenance that has to be conducted on a regular basis, two key areas emerge: that of airworthiness and meeting the pilot’s needs. As Sgt Tombs adds: “Whenever an aircraft is due to go flying, the platform gets a thorough visual inspection from the technicians, who also replenish any of the oils, gasses or other fluids consumed by the aircraft if they are getting low. We also check through the aircraft Health Usage and Monitoring System (HUMS), a piece of integral maintenance analysis software and send off oil samples to specialist agencies to ensure that there are no components getting close to failure.”
Further in-depth physical inspections take place at defined servicing intervals to make sure the aircraft remains in top condition, the most comprehensive of which requires the aircraft be sent back to the factory. “We keep a close eye on how many flying hours we are away from a depth inspection so we do not send the aircraft on a long deployment when major maintenance is due. Military aircraft are subject to a great deal of hard use and damage can occur when practicing for intense combat conditions, such as operating in hot sandy environments. We assess the level of damage and repair it as quickly as we can in order to return the aircraft to active duty. The safety of the aircrew and passengers is our top priority and we will never let an aircraft fly if we are not absolutely sure it is fit to be in the sky,” Sgt Tombs comments.
Then there are the pilot’s needs (and we’re not talking about whether his/her sandwiches are neatly stowed behind Wildcat’s sun visor). Firstly, their flying programme has to be met accurately, at whatever time of day their sortie is scheduled. Secondly, it’s up to the LAD to get all of the mission-specific systems online for the pilot’s next mission.
“Wildcat is primarily a reconnaissance helicopter, but is capable of a lot of other roles such as troop carrying, under-slinging loads, use as a gun platform, use in a casualty evacuation role and even winching people out of water,” explains Sgt Tombs. “All of these different roles require different types of equipment to be fitted on to the aircraft and making sure that the helicopter is in the right configuration for the next mission is a key part of our job. These missions can come in at short notice, but meeting the pilot’s requirements for a high-profile task is really rewarding.”
What has it been like for the REME, we wonder, to have worked so closely with Lynx over the years and to now be moving on to the leading-edge Wildcat? 661 Squadron SNCO Staff Sergeant Michael Panting describes the highs and lows of the journey: “Lynx was such a versatile aircraft. It could perform virtually any role and was small enough to fit onto transport aircraft to get it to wherever it was needed around the world and was used in virtually every operation the British Army has ever been involved in as long as most of us can remember.
“REME tradesmen are soldiers as well as engineers and the assistance that Lynx provided in so many areas gave great job satisfaction. A downside of working on Lynx was that it was very difficult to access all of its parts for maintenance and learning how to reach all of the different parts of the aircraft was an art form! The early models also leaked a bit, which meant they needed cleaning and replenishing more often, which wasn’t a particularly popular job!
“Wildcat is the newest aircraft the military has and it’s great to be at the forefront of this cutting-edge technology. We’re still working out all the strengths of the aircraft - it just keeps on giving more in terms of capability. Our older technicians are really sentimental about Lynx. We’ve spent a large part of our lives working on the aircraft and it reminds us of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met doing the job. Having said that, the Wildcat is definitely the future and there are lots of new memories to be made,” adds SSgt Panting.
As the final variants of the long-serving Lynx took to the sky in their final fly-past this year, the Royal Navy, too, gave praise to one of its most successful aircraft as it passed into history. Vice Admiral Ben Key, Fleet Commander and Lynx Observer, responsible for navigation, sensors and weapon systems, remarked: “It’s with a heavy heart that the Royal Navy bids goodbye to a steadfast friend, but we do so in the knowledge that, in the Wildcat, the Fleet Air Arm has a worthy successor and one that is already making its mark on operations today.
“The story of the Lynx is more than that of a machine. It’s about generations of men and women who dedicated their careers to design, build, train, operate and maintain these aircraft and all those who supported them around the UK and across the globe. The standards and reputation established by the Lynx Force will continue to guide the Wildcat Force as we enter a new era of maritime aviation.”
Wildcat’s trailblazing tech
• Infrared camera, stabilised electro-optical camera, laser designator and range-finder to mark targets.
• Integrated global positioning and inertial navigation system.
• Mission-planning system includes mission orders, tactical airspace information, meteorological and geographical data, enabling sorties to be planned for single or multiple platforms. Plans can be rehearsed in either 2D or 3D.
• CTS800 engines giving greatly improved hot and high altitude performance over Lynx.
• Four LCD integrated display units that integrate core avionics, communications and navigation systems.
• Cursor control device for the display and management of tactical views and control of the sensor suite.
• Thales Avionics secure communications control system featuring VHF, UHF and HR radios.
• A pintle-mounted general-purpose machine gun or M3M heavy machine gun.
• Integrated defensive aids system.
• Radar warning receiver and defensive aids system controller.
• Missile warning system.
• Countermeasures dispensing system (chaff and flare launcher).
• Ability to interact with the Bowman network, exchanging secure voice and data communications.