Preparing for Italy’s Future Light Utility Helicopter

Text and photography by Erik Bruijns and Mark de Greeuw
All the way down South in Italy, Calabria occupies the ‘toe’ of the country’s boot-shaped peninsula. It is a sun-baked region of rugged mountains, old-fashioned villages and dramatic coastline.
The three helicopter types currently in service with the 2nd Aviation Regiment
Since October 1996, the region has been home to the 2° Reggimento Aviazione dell’Esercito ‘Sirio’ (2nd Aviation Regiment), which is based at the international airport of Lamezia Terme. This rather new army base and unit consists of two flying groups: the 30° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Pegaso’ and 21° Distaccamento Permanente AVES ‘Orsa Maggiore’, both of which fly the Agusta Bell AB-212 (local designation UH-212) and Agusta Bell AB-412 (local designation HH-412A). The 21st permanent detachment is at Cagliari on the island of Sardinia. The Italian Army Aviation has been present in Lebanon since 3 July 1979 with the ITALAIR helicopter squadron. Since 2006, this detachment has been reorganized, according to United Nations Resolution 1701, and named as Task Force Italair.
The 2nd Aviation Regiment has been involved in the Leonte 2 peacekeeping mission in Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, for many years.
The 2nd Aviation Regiment has been involved in the ‘Leonte 2’ peacekeeping mission in Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, taking care of the preparation and training of the personnel commanded in service at the Task Force Italair of the UN multinational contingent, called United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL). Italian Army led, the task force consists of pilots from the army, air force and navy and operates six UH-212s, all sporting an overall white colour scheme with UN markings. Over the past 43 years, these helicopters flew more than 53,000 flight hours, completed 1,300 medical evacuations, transported more than 180,000 passengers and 4,000 tons of cargo.
Freshly painted UH-212 waiting to be ferried to Lebanon for another tour in the ItalAir mission.
Light Utility Helicopter

The Aviazione Dell’Esercito, AVES (Italian Army Aviation), has been looking for a replacement for a number of its aging helicopters. Most of these were placed in service between the 1970s and 1990s. With older flight controls and aging airframes, the Italian Army started to look for a general replacement of its ‘Elicotteri da Supporto al Combattimento’, ESC (Combat Support Helicopters), which consists of the Agusta A-109 and Agusta Bell AB-205, AB-206, AB-212 and AB-412. Next to a giant leap forward in technology, the optimization of logistics with a single-platform fleet, instead of the current one based on five different helicopters, helped in making the decision. Col. F. Bianchi, 2nd Aviation Regiment commander explained, “The LUH program, beyond the objective of progressively replacing all the assets currently in use in the light transport role, has the ambition to make the fleet more modern and rational. Our intention is to finetune the operational requirements for a more efficient logistics chain, and also making possible a reorganization of the Regiments of Support and Maintenance Squadrons. We do this while making the entire operation more homogeneous, streamlined, and functional, being based on a single type of set-up. With the A-109 having made its last flight on 14 October 2021, the UH-212 is set to be the next in line for replacement, which is currently scheduled for 2024.”
The new design and layout gives the UH-169 a bigger cockpit for optimal use of instruments and a good view outside.
The executive phase of the project started back in 2019, with Leonardo Helicopter Division having delivered the first of two AW169 Light Utility Helicopters on July 10, 2020. These were delivered in training configuration, after parliamentary approval for the purchase of 15 to 21 AW169Ms was granted in November 2019. The new helicopters, designated UH-169B by the Army, are formally configured as ‘Addestratore Basico Commerciale’ (Basic Commercial Trainer) and will be used to start the training of the crews that will fly the final configuration of the helicopter, called ‘Multiruolo Avanzato’ (Advanced Multirole). Gian Piero Cutillo, Managing Director of Leonardo Helicopters, said during the delivery ceremony, “It gives us great pleasure to celebrate with the Italian Army the delivery of its first AW169 in basic training configuration, as an essential enabler ahead of the implementation of the new, broader LUH programme. The LUH will definitely represent the start of a new era in terms of capabilities, technical support, mission flexibility and interoperability in the lightweight segment. The new programme takes advantage of many decades of a successful partnership and continued exchange of information, intended to fully understand the changing operational needs and how to address them through the possibilities offered by new technologies. We’re committed to supporting the Italian Army to maximise the benefits of these new helicopters.”
The UH-169 is a perfect replacement for the variety of helicopters it is scheduled to replace. It's versatile and agile.
The UH-169B is based on the AW169M, the military variant of the AW169 light intermediate twin-engine helicopter, designed to carry out a wide range of tasks, including utility, surveillance, special operations, maritime patrol, land reconnaissance, training, rescue and firefighting. The requirements set for the programme by the Ministry of Defence requested a helicopter that was already in service in other Italian armed forces or law enforcement agencies. It was required to have Command and Control (C2) systems already in service or in the acquisition phase, a service life of 10,000 flight hours or no less than 30 years, and the capability to communicate and transmit images and videos to the troops on the ground, both with Italian assets and in a joint/NATO environment, following the Army’s Forza NEC (Network Enabled Capability) programme. The helicopter was also required to be able to perform in a role for civilian Search and Rescue (SAR), MEDical EVAcuation (MEDEVAC), surveillance, firefighting and support in the event of natural calamities. Col. F. Bianchi explained, “The Italian Armed Forces sometimes have been conducting peacetime operations in support of the Italian population. Search and rescue, humanitarian relief, medical transportation, medical evacuation, firefighting and national security are among the missions that support the local population in time of need. These are just a few of the many missions regularly carried out by the Italian military for the community”.

With the hot and dry summer months getting more intense in Europe, and especially the south of Europe, assisting the civilian agencies in firefighting duties is becoming one of the main tasks of the 2nd Aviation Regiment. Last year, more than 100 hours were flown in firefighting duties. Having a helicopter that originates from this role enables the Italian Army to quickly adapt and provide assistance where needed.
The cross section of the rotor blades is reduced in comparison with the 212 and 412, making it better in confined spaces.
The advanced multirole configuration of the AW169 LUH currently in development will feature dedicated flight and mission equipment, including a Night Vision Goggle (NVG) compatible integrated glass cockpit, advanced C4 systems (Command, Control, Communication and Computers), rescue hoist and rappelling/fast roping equipment, Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) system, self-defence systems, searchlight, loudspeakers, cargo hook and both internal and external weapon stations. The final version, of which the first deliveries will take place at the end of 2023, will also be equipped with skids instead of a landing gear. The current two UH-169Bs have their standard retractable landing gear permanently fixed in the down position. The helicopter uses the same configuration as the A-109, which is one front wheel and two wheels in the back. Based on the experience with the A-109, it was a requirement from the beginning to have skids instead of landing gear. The stability that is gained when using skids is of much value, hence the requirement for this setup. The helicopter is designed to the latest Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR), Joint Aviation Requirements (JAR) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) requirements, as well as those standards of military, homeland security and government users. The unique transmission design provides power to hydraulic, electrical and air conditioning systems with the rotors stopped (APU mode) optimising response time and availability. The cabin is the most spacious in its class and features a constant height cross section for rapid reconfiguration and ease of access. Compared to the older UH-212 and HH-412, the AW169 can be reconfigured much more efficient and in a shorter timeframe. This enables the ground crew to be more flexible when it comes to quickly adapting to different missions. Pilots benefit from a latest-generation, open-architecture avionics suite, including a fully digital glass cockpit and unprecedented external visibility, providing advanced tactical and situational awareness.
The first milestone reached is the completion of the training of 35 pilots and 31 flight engineers so far up to July 2022.
AW169 programme

The introduction of the latest generation training helicopter allows the Italian Army to prepare its crews for the future operational transition. This will be to an all-new advanced multirole Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) programme, developed from the AW169 dual-use baseline, which is aimed at longer-term fleet modernisation and rationalisation plan. The two UH-169B trainers have enabled the Italian Army to familiarise itself with the platform’s basic characteristics during the development of the new LUH. These have been supplied with comprehensive turnkey logistical support and a pilot/maintenance technician training package which will maintain high availability rates and ensure operational readiness. The main activities include the study and in-flight verification of the civil version, in order to define the changes and variants necessary for its reconfiguration into a military version, and with a familiarization function aimed at facilitating the future operational transition of the crews to the new helicopter. Getting pilots familiar with the new, all-glass cockpit is important as the older helicopters operate completely differently. From a technician’s point of view there is a lot to learn as well, as with the new systems the helicopter will tell you exactly what needs to be done, how and when, before the helicopter is even shut down.

For the test and evaluation programme, Lamezia Terme was chosen as the base, as Col. F. Bianchi elaborated, “The activities at the base consist of testing the new helicopter and all its new features as well as training the first batch of pilots and ground crew, in preparation for the introduction of the initial fifteen examples at the end of 2023. Our job is to study and verify, in flight, the basic version of the aircraft, in order to settle modifications aimed to its reconfiguration into the LUH military version. Nowadays we are moving on with the training part, while Leonardo HD is developing future features for the MA version, based on the Italian Army’s requirements. The programme benefits from a more efficient supply chain, based on a ‘one single platform’ approach. The introduction of the AW169 LUH, specifically developed for the Italian Army, leverages on the AW169M military helicopter baseline. It provides the advantage of unique logistical, operational and technical, certification and training commonalities and synergies across the growing AW169 fleets of government operators in Italy. This strengthens the possibility to perform effective and safe joint operations with other users of this modern type and represents a quantum leap in homeland security, emergency response capability and overall, through-lifecycle costs/effectiveness for decades to come. Over 290 orders and options have been placed to date for the AW169 from customers worldwide, and more than 130 are already in service globally, with the Guardia di Finanza already operating the type since the end of 2019 in Italy”.
“The Italian Army headquarters set the plan to have a shared experience gaining phase amongst the three regiments involved in the project (2nd Aviation Regiment ‘Sirio’, 4th Aviation Regiment ‘Altair’ and 1st Support Regiment ‘Idra’). This approach granted that the support to future missions abroad will be based on a far wider manpower basket and the standard of these units will be significantly improved. The instructor’s team is composed of elements from these three regiments and led by the 2nd Regiment ‘Centro Formazione Equipaggi’. The 30th Gruppo Squadroni ‘Pegaso’ at Lamezia Terme is responsible for experience build up and mix tasking”, as Col. F. Bianchi continuoued. “Our regiment at Lamezia Terme was chosen as the squadron to perform these activities for two main reasons. Firstly, the infrastructure, training areas, training and education capabilities met the requirements of the new LUH in the initial stage. There is a wide variety of training areas in the area surrounding Lamezia Terme. To the north-northeast of the base is a mountainous area going up to 2,000 meters, which even has snow in the winter months. Further to the east there is an area that is very dry and sandy, which resembles a desert environment. Directly to the west of the base, there is a coastline which includes sandy beaches as well as rugged and rocky cliffs. To the south there is a low flying area with valleys for tactical training. All these areas combined make the base ideal for testing a new type of helicopter and putting it through its paces for the variety of missions the Italian Army is going to use the AW169. The second main reason for concentrating the training in the south of Italy is linked to the ongoing deployment of the Italian army in Lebanon. The 2nd Aviation Regiment is the main unit providing air assets and pilots to the UN mission. The plan is to deploy the new platform as soon as possible in theatre in Lebanon, so having the advantage of flying the new helicopter with pilots that have flown there enables the squadron to prepare for that specific mission”.

“The introduction into service phase is a quite remarkable plan that spans over four years. The first milestone reached was the completion of the training of 35 pilots and 31 flight engineers so far up to July 2022. These new pilots and technicians will be ready for employment in operations by the end of 2023 when the first new helicopters will be delivered.”.
The UH-212 is set to be next in line for replacement, which is currently scheduled for 2024.
AW169M in detail

The AW169M meets the growing demand for a next-generation helicopter that combines class-leading performance with superior range and safety. Col. F. Bianchi explains, “The glass cockpit is one of the most modern and advanced in the industry and combines latest-generation avionics with exceptional external visibility. This maximises situational awareness and minimises pilot workload during day and night operations, increasing operational safety. Its advanced avionics suite and cockpit design improves visibility and minimise pilot fatigue, allowing the crew to concentrate on the mission. The AW169’s ergonomic design, excellent handling characteristics and low vibration levels further reduce crew fatigue and enhance passenger comfort. The remarkably wide cargo compartment can carry up to ten troops and can be converted to accommodate two stretchers. It is more or less the same as that of the legacy class in terms of internal space available and reconfiguration capabilities. There is optional ballistic protection for the cockpit and the cabin, while self-sealing tanks and a defensive aids suite ensure high levels of survivability and crashworthiness. Large sliding doors (1,60m / 5ft 3in wide) enable rapid entry and egress of troops. A rescue hoist and rappelling / fast roping equipment enables troop insertion and extraction from the hover position. It is equipped with a smaller main rotor and shorter tail boom to ease operations and to allow landing in smaller sites. The platform features outstanding power, agility and manoeuvrability which provide excellent handling characteristics in a wide range of operating conditions, including hot and high areas. The future UH-169MA (Multiruolo Avanzato) will be configured with ‘mission equipment’ features in order to tailor the aircraft to each of the missions”.

The AW169M is a true multi-role helicopter ready for a diversity of missions in which it can easily be adapted. Making use of crashworthy seating for the troops inside, there is a possibility to add a 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) or sniper rifles located in the cabin door. For transporting cargo, the large flat floor and sliding doors enable rapid loading and unloading of cargo and equipment. Coupled with a 1,500 kg cargo hook capability, with ‘in cockpit’ monitoring the helicopter has the capacity to conduct effective resupply and lift operations. For Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) and Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC), the helicopter makes use of two seats located at the rear of cabin and up to three seats in the front of the cabin, with two stretchers mounted transversally on the flat floor enabling full body access to patients. Attachment points and power outlets are provided for medical equipment. With about 7,500 kilometres of coastline in Italy, Search and Rescue (SAR) missions are included in the activity scope of all Italian forces. Through the new helicopter the Italian army can use seats for a hoist operator and medic, enabling hoist operations and patient recovery through the cabin door. An optional mission console integrated with helicopter avionic system enhances situational awareness and search capabilities to further increase mission effectiveness. Fore and aft facing seats enable rapid egress and ingress of a Special Forces (SF) team through the cabin doors. The fast-roping system enables simultaneous egress of two troops per side. The rescue hoist can be used to recover SF teams when in the hover position. Threat suppression is provided by crew served weapons in the cabin door. Battlefield capabilities from Command and Control (C2), Communications, Computers (C4), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) are provided depending on the mission by means of a dedicated console in the cabin integrated with the AW169M mission management, mission systems and sensors. This enables the helicopter to collect, produce and distribute time critical C2 and ISR information to the forces on the ground and other assets in the air. Close Air Support (CAS) and Armed Escort capabilities are provided by the AW169M sighting and external weapon systems that complement door mounted crew served weapons. Heavy machine gun pods and guided and unguided rockets provide scalable threat suppression capabilities to enhance combat effectiveness. It is at this moment however not confirmed whether the Italian Army will integrate an external weapon load.
Path to introduction

Col. F. Bianchi concluded, “The training with the helicopter itself along with Leonardo’s training facilities allow crews to gain a remarkable level of skills in a very short time. Its manoeuvrability along with the power available makes it an excellent light multipurpose helicopter. Pilots like it because it is easy to use, and it is featured with ‘user friendly’ technology. Its performances along with its comfort are welcomed by legacy pilots. We are still in the testing phase but so far, the new helicopter definitely allows to accomplish our assigned tasks which are currently performed by the legacy helicopters. From a training point of view, the only challenge was the glass cockpit conversion of the crew, because all the Italian legacy class helicopters are equipped with conventional instruments. To comply with this demanding task (glass cockpit conversion), the theoretical element of the training course has been extended with an additional week of a GLass cockpit and Automation Management (GLAM) course, focused on explaining the glass cockpit and automation engineering, providing also Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) elements”.

“The Italian Army General Staff is constantly coordinating with the Army Aviation Command, which is constantly sharing information and experience with Leonardo representatives in order to ease the development of the project. We have a dedicated Leonardo technical element along with ground equipment and a warehouse on site to help with maintenance and solving potential issues. In parallel the Italian Ministry of Defence is developing a government-to-government project with the Austrian Ministry of Defence. With Austria signing a contract for procurement of 18 AW169’s (six AW169Bs and a further 12 AW169MAs) on 2 December 2021, the Italian Army is going to be involved in the advanced training of Austrian crews. These kind of collaborations enables the Italian Army to get even more efficiency and information out of the programme and pave the way for introduction of the new helicopter and years of intense use.”

Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank Col. F. Bianchi and Lt.Col. L Starace as well as all men and women of the 2nd Aviation Regiment at Lamezia Terme for all their help making this article possible.