Four leased AW139 for RMAF

BUTTERWORTH: The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has leased four Leonardo AW139 helicopters as an interim measure to meet its operational requirements.

It is also seeking to lease another four similar medium-lift, utility helicopters, early next year.

This came about after the grounding and eventual phasing out of the Sikorsky S-61A-4 Nuri fleet in January last year, which had been a mainstay and workhorse for the RMAF for over 50 years.

RMAF chief General Tan Sri Ackbal Abdul Samad told The New Straits Times that the move was a short-term, stop-gap solution in its long-term plan to eventually acquire a fleet of 24 new helicopters with combat-search and rescue capabilities.

"We already have a fleet of 12 Eurocopter EC-725 Caracals (now referred to as Airbus Helicopters H225M) that were procured in 2012.

"Our plan is to have a total of 36 such new helicopters to form three squadrons," he said, adding that more helicopters may be leased if required, for the next five years.

Ackbal added that the procurement for 24 new helicopters was to be made during the 13th Malaysia Plan (2026-2030) and 14th Malaysia Plan (2031-2035).

"We plan to acquire a fleet of 12 new helicopters under the 13th Malaysia Plan, and the remaining 12 in the following 14th Malaysia Plan," he said.

The NST is made to believe that there is a great possibility of the RMAF acquiring more new EC 725 as eventual Nuri replacements.

This could be in line with the government's attempt to purchase and operate a similar aircraft fleet to optimise resources and logistics.

The NST understands that the four AW139 were leased from Weststar Aviation Services and were based at the RMAF Butterworth base in Penang.

It is learnt that Weststar Aviation Services has despatched a full complement of spares and maintenance services, including technical and engineering crew, to Butterworth as part of the 'GOCOM' (Government-Operates-Company-Owns and Maintains) lease deal.

The helicopters are being painted in the grey Royal Malaysian Air Force livery at the Weststar Aviation Services hangar in Kertih, Terengganu and expected to be handed over to the RMAF by next month.

"The RMAF decided to incorporate the GOCOM deal to keep operating costs down, in its bid to achieve its mission objectives," said Ackbal.

He revealed that the RMAF immediately needed up to eight medium-lift, utility helicopters to oversee the operational security needs in the South China Sea and East Malaysia.

"We, therefore, are looking at leasing the helicopters while awaiting selection of the new helicopters which can take up to three years to be procured gradually," he said.

Ackbal said the RMAF had sought a budget of RM70 million, which was meant as upkeep for the aged Nuris, from the ministry to acquire leased helicopters.

"We have to consider that our air mobility is not affected with the absence of the Nuris.

"At the same time, we have to seek alternatives according to the cost involved and the availability of finance," he said.

The decision to phase out the Nuris came following after-thoughts and deliberations the past two decades, in relation to the huge wear and tear, and exorbitant maintenance costs, with spares difficult to source.

The medium-lift AW139 is also being operated by several enforcement agencies in the country, like the police, Fire and Rescue Department, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The RMN is set to take delivery of three maritime versions of the AW139 from Italy, from next month towards the middle of next year.

The RMN plans to operate the three helicopters from the RMN's submarine base in Teluk Sepanggar, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

The twin-engine AW139 can seat 15, with a crew of two, fly 300km per hour, has a range of 1,061km and endurance of five hours.

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