German helicopters under Northern Lights
Exercise Cold Blade 2016 brought two German CH-53 GA helicopters to Finland for a joint exercise with the Finnish Defence Forces.
Photography courtesy of Johannes Heyn
Tough climate conditions were expected when, for two weeks in early March, 70 men and women from German Air Force Base Holzdorf gathered in the vicinity of Ivalo, Finland, near the Arctic Circle, to take part in Exercise Cold Blade 2016.
This multi-national training exercise was organized by the European Defence Agency (EDA) under the umbrella of the Helicopter Exercise Programme (HEP). All European states with the exception of Denmark are part of the EDA, which focuses on defense planning, procurement and research.
The HEP is designed to bring aircrews of different member states together to learn from each other, share experiences and enhance operating skills, with the goal of eventually being able to deploy seamlessly in a mission environment using common tactics, techniques and procedures.
Exercise Cold Blade 2016 — which incorporated six NHI Industries NH-90 helicopters operated by the Finnish Defence Forces, and two Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters operated by the German Air Force — allowed European helicopter crews to train and adopt common procedures while operating in a challenging winter scenario.
Besides the focus on flying in demanding environmental conditions, Cold Blade 2016 provided a test of aircraft performance in cold and snowy conditions.
German Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wittemann, who commanded the participating detachment of the Air Transport Group of Helicopter Wing 64, went into the exercise prepared for the worst. Cold Blade 2016 activities took place around 300 kilometers (185 miles) above the Arctic Circle, and temperatures of -25 C were expected for northern Finland at the time.
Helicopter Wing 64 is the last remaining rotary-wing unit of the German Air Force and the sole operator of the CH-53 fleet at two locations, in Laupheim and Holzdorf. A priority for the team from Holzdorf Air Base was the testing and evaluation of their newly upgraded CH-53 GA “German Advanced” helicopters in the harsh climate conditions in northern Finland.
The extensive GA upgrade program saw the helicopters fitted with new state-of-the-art avionics, flight management and communications systems, as well as a four-axis automatic flight control system with auto-hover capabilities.
The airframes also received a number of operational, mechanical and electrical upgrades that will extend their service life from 6,000 to 10,000 flight hours. The CH-53 is now expected to fly operational missions for the German Air Force until at least 2025, by which time a new heavy transport helicopter model, yet to be selected, should be entering service.
For Cold Blade 2016, the CH-53 GAs were equipped with engine air particle separator (EAPS) systems, since some of the northern airports use gritting material during the winter periods. The airframes were also fitted with Scotty satellite communications systems as well as Selex Galileo FLIR 111 forward-looking infrared cameras.
The Finnish Defence Forces provided their German guests with a KT-Shelter mobile field hangar for storage of their machines during inspections and maintenance work.
As it happened, Cold Blade 2016 didn’t provide quite the endurance test that crews had prepared for. “Unfortunately, the temperatures were not as cold as expected — on average minus five degrees Celsius,” Wittemann reported after the conclusion of the exercise. Nevertheless, he said, “We accomplished a lot, and did approximately 30 hours of training flights on both helicopters.”
Training exercises included landings and takeoffs in deep snow and whiteout conditions, external cargo flights, and formation flights with NH-90 tactical transport helicopters from the Helicopter Battalion of the Finnish Army’s Utti Jaeger Regiment.
The flights also incorporated training in tactical mission elements, such as low-level flights under night vision goggles, and aerial gunnery using the on-board 7.62-mm MG 3 machine guns. More than 3,000 shots were fired both during day and night operations.
Another positive output of these training flights was the successful mission qualification of young pilots who are now ready to serve in theater. Soldiers of Helicopter Wing 64 are still part of the ongoing NATO operations in Afghanistan, where five of their helicopters are permanently based for air transport and medical evacuation duties.
“In retrospect, the exercise can be viewed as a success,” stated Wittemann. Overall, he said, Cold Blade 2016 delivered an outstanding opportunity for German and Finnish helicopter crews to pool their knowledge and training skills, providing invaluable preparation for future European crisis management operations.
Although most of the German technicians and supporting personnel traveled to and from Ivalo Airport on a German Air Force C-160 Transall cargo plane, crews of the two CH-53 GAs had to fly them there and back. They made the 12-hour trip home in three segments along the Swedish coast before crossing the Baltic Sea into Germany, eventually landing safely at Holzdorf Air Base.