Return of the Black Sea Knights

Romania's Navy (Fortele Navale Române/FNR) is small comparing to other naval forces in the Black Sea region and within NATO. Though having a number of frigates, corvettes and minesweepers the size of the naval aviation component is limited tothreeIAR.330 ‘Puma Naval’ locally designed and built helicopters serving in a variety of tasks.

Romanian Naval Aviationcelebrates its tenth anniversary in 2017. The‘ Black Sea Knights’ helicopter squadron ishoused at Tuzla Airport, located southwest of Constanta, andis operating three IAR.330slocally built and designated ‘Puma Naval’ (Navy) helicopters. The history of Romanian Naval Aviation dates back to June 1920 when the first aircraft arrived. By the end of World War 2 twenty-fourHeinkel He-114s were in service. These seaplanes were withdrawn from service over the years with no replacement. Naval Aviation operationswere disbanded in May 1960 when the last eight He-114s were scrapped.

In the late 1980's, when the first Tetal II class frigate and destroyer ‘Mărășești’ entered service with the FNR, a number of IAR.316B Alouette helicopters were outfitted with inflatable flotation gear and a winch on the port side, as well as foldable main rotor blades. The two Tetal II class ships have a deck capable of handling one IAR.316Bwhile ‘Marasesti’ has a deck and hangar capable of accommodating two IAR.316Bs. The helicopters were sourced from Air Force (Fortele Armee Română/ FAR) inventory, based at Tuzla at the time. With the disbandment of the 59th Helicopter Group from Tuzla in 2001 and the retirement of most of the IAR.316s, the Romanian Navy found itself with no helicopter support from the FAR. The few operational IAR.330s from the disbanded squadron at Tuzla transferred to the 863rd Helicopter Squadron at Mihail Kogalniceanu.

“With the acquisition of two Type 22 frigates; F-221 Regele Ferdinand (ex HMS Coventry) and F-222 Regina Maria (ex HMS London)in 2004 it became clear there was a need for a dedicated naval helicopter force and procedures had to be adopted resulting in a steep learning curve for our crews. Without helicopters we are not able to perform all our tasks” according to Captain Ioan. “They are a vital part in our ASW/ASuW tasks”.

“In March 2016 a modernization programme has been started to upgrade the Type 22 frigates to be able to be able to carry out ASW and Anti-Surface Ship Warfare (ASuW) missions and to improve the Command & Control systems onboard. The upgrade will have a timespan of three years planned to be finalized in 2019” adds Captain Ioan.

A request for three new helicopters was issued xxx. Elbit Systems & IAR Brasov being contracted in July 2005 with cooperation of FHL Claverham, Aerazur, Rockwell Collins, Breeze Eastern and Rafael Company from Israel. The first IAR.330 Puma Naval (#140) made its first flight at Ghimbav, Brasov on 30 January 2007. The IAR.330 Puma Naval underwent testing from February until June 2007, including sea trials and ship compatibility tests.

On 13 July 2007 the ‘Black Sea Knights’ squadron was formally re-established after forty-seven years of absence with the introduction into service of the first IAR.330 Puma Naval (#140) assigned to the Type 22 Frigate "Regele Ferdinand". By the end of 2007, each of the eight Naval Aviation pilots logged a total of 25 flight hours. The second IAR.330 Puma Naval (# 141) was delivered during January 2008. After delivery of the third IAR.330 Puma Naval (‘142’) the squadron relocated end 2009 to Tuzla. “ Initial tasks were mainly day operations to get to learn operating the Puma Naval and get used to seaborne operations” according to Lt. Cmdr. Bogdan Curca. “ The next phase we started to train and explore the capabilities of the tactical consoles onboard, lastly in the period 2009-2010 night operations were high on our agenda in the training syllabus to be able to operate 24/7 when required”. Currently not all pilots have been qualified for night operations.

The main modifications to the Puma Naval compared to the standard IAR.330L variant are: cockpit layout, Rafael Toplite eletro-optical ball senor in the nose (EOP), laser and radar warning receivers, blade antennas under the tail boom and on top of the main rotor fairing, chaff and flare dispensers under the main gear. These modifications can also be found in the IAR.330 SOCAT fleet of the Romanian Air Force (FAR). For naval operations a number of changes were made to the basic IAR.330L airframe: foldable main rotor blades, inflatable flotation gear, door-mounted winch on the starboard side, anti-crash seats, harpoon for deck landing in rough weather conditions, crash position indicator on the port side of the tail boom, two searchlights under the fuselage and a bubble-type observation window on the sliding doors. “We basically added what devices we require for naval operations to the standard IAR.330L airframe” adds squadron commander Marius Mitric.

At the time of the Authors visit exercises were conducted with the DDG-78 USS Porter to share experiences and procedures operating in a multi-national environment. This also included deck landings of an IAR.330 at the USS Porter.Till date the FNR have been involved in Unified Protector (2011) and Operation Atalanta (2012) as part of European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR). The latter deployment included an IAR.330, 4 pilots and 12 technicians/engineers. “Before we deployed we had a Maritime Interdiction training to prepare ourselves for the anti-piracy mission” according to Commander Ciobotaru. He continues “We mainly conducted ISR missions of the Somali coast working with multi-national MPAs with usage of digital cameras. On average two missions a day were flown during the deployment of three months” he concludes.

Operations with the Puma Naval typically consists of a pilot, copilot and a mechanic, who is also operating the winch in case of SAR missions. “For ASuW missions two operators are added to the crew who are responsible for operating the sonar buoys and datalink 11 which is used to exchange large amounts of data between helicopter and the ASuW operators onboard our Frigates .The tactical consoles can be added rapidly and can deliver a valuable Recognized Maritime Picture (RMP) to our fleet” explains Black Sea Knight Commander Mitric.

In December 2005 ten selected navalofficers started their initial flight training at the Air Force Academy at Boboc on the IAR.316B helicopter type qualifying as Navy pilots in July 2006 finalizing a 100 hour training syllabus. “At the start the trainers at Boboc were a bit hesitant to have naval aviators with no experience trained, luckily this changed as we showed our capabilities and dealing successfully with the fast pace of training” according to one of the FAR Naval pilots.The new naval aviators continued with an accelerated training on the IAR.330 SOCAT at Bucharest-Otopeni airport for an additional 75 hours focusing on day operations, basic maneuvering and emergency procedures” explains Commander Ciobotaru, one of the current elite naval pilots.Simultaneously with the pilot training, eighteen ground crew technicians were trained at Boboc Air Force Academy. Two of the eight pilots are also instructors on the IAR.330 Puma Naval.

“As we did not have any relevant experience anymore in naval operations we had to start building our expertise again. In a way we are a self-learningsquadron” according to Lt. Cmdr. Bogdan Curca“To build up our expertise in Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) operations we have been working closely together with ASW operators on our Frigates as of 2014”. “After an extensive training we gained operational ASW capabilities in 2015. Currently we are conducting real life exercises with the Turkish Navy (Türk Deniz Kuvvetleri) submarines in order to test our procedures deploying the new TMS2000 sonobuoys with support of two technicians from Thalys”. To enhance IAR-330 Puma Naval helicopter's ASWIAR Brasov awarded a contract in June 2013 to Thales to develop and deliver TMS 2000 sonobuoy processors. The sonobuoys send acoustic data to the processor through a VHF link which is received from the VHF receiver and processed by the aircraft in real-time. The TMS 2000 provides capabilities for detection, tracking, localization and classification of surface and subsurface targets in all environments by processing active and/or passive acoustic data gathered from sonobuoys. The TMS 2000 provides mono and multi-static processing modes for all active sonobuoys.

The last stage of the modernization was finalized by late 2015 and had run for two years. The helicopters have been fitted with torpedo launchers, extending their operability to anti-submarine warfare. The Puma Naval had previously been outfitted in 2012 with two machine guns (7.62 mm and 12.7 mm), for anti-piracy operations (operation Atalanta). “We have not selected and procured the actual torpedoes yet” adds squadron commander Mitric.“The Puma Naval is able to carry various torpedoes. We just select what equipment we want to have and put it on the helicopter. That is our way of working and thinking”finalizes Marius Mitric. It is expected a final decision will be made before end of 2016 which torpedo will be selected. It is most likely the BAE systems Stingray torpedo will be selected.

To further sustain the future of Romanian Naval Aviation there are plans to acquire a fourth IAR.330 Puma Naval specifically to support the Batalionul 307 Infanterie Marina (307th Marine Battalion), the elite squadron of the Romanian Marines. The Marines are trained in a similar way with the Green Berets and Rangers and are primarily used for on/off -shore and beach-head establishing missions, as well as fighting in Delta regions such as the Danube Delta.Less known is the cooperationwith GNFOS Grupul Naval - Forte pentru Operații Speciale Grupul Scafandri Incursori (Special Operations Naval Group) who also saw action during Operation Atalanta (2012) .

To support the future expansion of tasks and sustain the ‘Black Knight’ squadron a new group of young pilots is planned to be trained at Boboc training school in the near future.