IT WAS labelled by the Chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2003… «one of the most incompetent procurements of all time».
These eight Chinook HC.3 transport helicopters have never been cleared for service, and have been kept in storage at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, ever since delivery.
Ordered in 1995, the HC.3 aircraft were conceived as dedicated special forces helicopters, built to a unique standard, with a hybrid digital/ analogue cockpit. There were some problems in fitting the planned displays, however, and the aircraft had to be stored while the final avionics fit was being decided and redesigned, delaying the intended In Service Date from 1998 to 2002.
The hybrid cockpit was software driven, but the software contract was poorly written, and the MoD failed to specify that the software needed to comply with UK defence standards, which required software integrity to be fully demonstrated and proven. Programme insiders have also told the author: «The software driving the new instruments and displays works, but because it has not been properly cleared and proven to the UK’s very rigorous airworthiness standards (and because there are therefore small but unquantifiable risks of failure), pilots are not allowed to rely on them, and this limited the aircraft to flying by day, clear of cloud, and not at low level. It just cannot be proven to the standards required.» Because of this, Boscombe Down had no option but to recommend that the aircraft was ‘unacceptable’ for a Military Aircraft Release.
Boeing was entirely happy with the aircraft, however, and Boscombe Test Pilots involved in the programme told AFM that the technical problems found with the aircraft were remarkably trivial and could have been worked around, improved, or even quietly accepted.
Had the decision been taken to accept the hypothetical software risk (against Boscombe’s formal advice, which would not be unheard of) then programme insiders suggest a Military Aircraft Release could have been signed and the aircraft could have been in squadron service three years ago.
The Chinook HC.2 has FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) software which is just as difficult to validate to the required standard, and which is even more ‘flight safety critical’ than the Chinook HC.3 cockpit software, but this risk has been ‘quietly accepted’ (to do otherwise would be to ground the entire Chinook fleet).
The unwillingness to accept the hypothetical risk on the HC.3 means that the ‘Fix to Field’ programme, now being examined, will involve stripping out their cockpits completely. DARA Fleetlands is understood to be about to receive a signed contract to install the Thales TopDeck integrated avionics system on the aircraft, at an estimated cost of £250 million. This would be on top of the £259 million that has already been spent on these aircraft.