A Lynx Wildcat helicopter has completed 20 days of sea trials aboard the British frigate HMS Iron Duke in waters off southern England and northern Scotland. It was the latest in a series of trials required before the GBP16 million (US$25 million) state-of-the-art combat aircraft can enter into active service with the British Army and the Royal Navy. The latest trails involved putting the helicopter through tests that involved over 400 day and nighttime take offs and landings from the Iron Duke in the worst weather conditions that could be found to assess the mission systems, night-vision equipment and navigation systems.

Britain's 21st century helicopter

Also known by its manufacturer as the AW 159, the Lynx Wildcat is slated to replace the Lynx combat helicopter that has been in service with the British Army and Royal Navy for 40 years. Though the Wildcat bears a strong resemblance to the Lynx, with the exception of its distinctive airfoil tail, the Wildcat is classed as a completely new aircraft. It was developed and built by the Anglo-Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland under a GBP1 billion (US$1.57 billion) Ministry of Defence contract as part of the Future Lynx program begun in 2002.

The Lynx Wildcat is a twin-engine, multi-purpose combat helicopter. Unlike specialized helicopters, such as the Apache gunship, the Wildcat is designed to carry out a variety of missions. These include ground attack, cargo transport, medivac, air assault, troop transport, and command and control for the Army, and search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare for the Navy. They are also designed to serve as the Royal Navy's aerial mainstay for frigate and destroyer forces.

The Wildcat is powered by two LHTEC CTS800-4N turboshaft engines developed jointly by Rolls Royce and Honeywell. These generate up to 1,800 bhp each, which is a third more power than the old Lynx put out. It carries a crew of two and seven passengers and has a maximum take off weight 13,228 lbs (6,000 kg). This is again more than the old Lynx, but it's maximum range of 521 nm (600 mi, 963 km) is nearly identical to a Lynx's, and its top speed of 157 kts (181 mph, 291 kph) is actually slower. However, it does have modular armor and armored crew seats, which is important because baddies tend to shoot at the bottoms of helicopters and pilots find it uncomfortable to sit on their flak jackets.

As to armaments, the Wildcat can carry forward-firing rockets, machine guns, door-mounted mounted machine guns, it has an Air-to-Surface Missile system, and can deploy torpedoes and depth charges. Backing all of this up are such optional extras as state-of-the-art radar, active dipping sonar for sub hunting, electro-optical imaging and electronic surveillance measures featuring 360-degree imaging cameras with infrared, an integrated self-defense suite for fending off missile attacks, and integrated weapons controls. In layman's terms, it is very nasty to go up against.

Sea trials

The recent sea trials saw thirty engineers and experts working in cramped conditions as they monitored data sent back from the helicopter via video feeds and telemetry sensors in the airframe, engines, rotor and gear box as two Fleet Air Arm test pilots put the Wildcat through its paces under a wide variety of conditions and payloads.

According to Commander Nick Cooke-Priest, HMS Iron Duke's Commanding Officer, in a press release from the Ministry of Defence, "Wildcat is a very capable aircraft, a completely valued successor to the Lynx, and once fully mature will provide significantly enhanced capability to the maritime domain."

The successful completion of the recent round of sea trials doesn't mean time off for the prototype aircraft and its pilots. As the crew scores and reams of data are analyzed by experts, further trials will continue throughout the year with tests of the radar systems, electro-optics and navigational kit, and missile firing exercises.

Barring setbacks, the British Army will receive the first of their complement of 38 later this year, which are due to enter operational service in 2014. The first of the order of 28 naval variants are also due to be delivered to 700W Naval Air Squadron at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset, UK, in January 2013, ahead of planned deployment in 2015.

Although the Ministry of Defence has said it doesn't comment on matters involving special forces, eight of the Army's 38 Wildcat's are expected to be "Light Assault" helicopters intended for special forces use.

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