The helicopter was presented during an event at Airbus Helicopters’ plant in Donauwörth, Germany on 8 December, with its first flight having taken place one week earlier.
In 2015 Berlin signed a contract to acquire 18 examples of the NFH variant for its navy, with deliveries to begin in 2019.
Speaking during the event, Wolfgang Schoder, the chief executive of Airbus Helicopters Deutschland, said he was delighted to “present the maiden flight of this extraordinarily important programme”. The first flight event was “in line with the contract timeline”, he says, noting: “We are in a positive mood because we are 100% on track.”
Keeping to the ambitious timeline will be challenging, Schoder says, but he is confident that none of the development issues that have plagued the NH90 programme in the past will be repeated on the new variant.
The German navy will use the Sea Lion to replace its aged fleet of Westland Sea Kings. “We are urgently awaiting the Sea Lion. The Sea King has been in use for more than 40 years – it has been reliable, but at some point these things become outdated,” says Vice Adm Andreas Krause, head of the German navy.
The Sea King 41s are now showing declining availability levels of about 40-50%, says naval Capt Matthias Potthoff, commander of naval air forces.
Germany’s Sea Lion configuration is largely based on the NFH variant already operated by the French navy, which includes a rear ramp, but with national-specific modifications. These include a state-of-the-art navigation system to enable operation in civil airspace, new communications equipment, an identification friend-or-foe system, and automatic ship identification sensors, says programme manager Rüdiger Georg.
Georg says more than 100h of flight testing will be required before the first delivery in 2019, with the effort to use two pre-serial aircraft.
“Everything is going quite well,” he says. “There is some development work to do for those new technologies, but it is running quite well – we are on track.”
The second helicopter is on the production line at Donauwörth and is due to roll out in January, ahead of a first flight in June.
Krause says the Sea Lion will be introduced for land-based search and rescue missions from 2022, with shipborne operations to begin a year later.
“We will start phasing out the Sea King because of its age – it is more than 40 years old and doesn’t have the material availability you would expect from a state-of-the-art helicopter.”
Berlin has a separate requirement to replace its Westland Sea Lynx fleet from 2025, for which the Sea Lion is also seen as a potential candidate.