These may be uncertain times for the staff at Gosport-based Vector Aerospace. The announcement on 7 July that Airbus was set to sell the company to US giants, Veritas Capital, owners of Standard Aero has probably not eased anxieties. It comes nine years after Airbus acquired the company in 2008.
Vector purchased the Defence Aviation and Repair Agency (DARA) facilities at Fleetlands and Almondbank north of Edinburgh in 1998. At the time of Vector’s take-over, DARA Fleetlands in Gosport provided maintenance, repair and overhaul support for the UK MOD’s CHINOOK, LYNX and Sea KING helicopters. Since then it has grown the business, turning the former Royal Navy Air Yard into one of the most diverse helicopter MROs in the UK, by building up its civilian interests. While the work on Airbus, Sikorsky and Leonardo helicopters ticks away nicely, it’s the military work that has been catching the eye.
Pakistan Sea KINGs
On 24 May, Vector Aerospace started work on returning to service three Sea KINGs to the Pakistan Navy. They are part of a separate contract between the UK MOD and the Pakistan Navy for seven former UK MoD Sea KINGs signed last year.
A visit to the facility just two days before the sale of Vector was announced, found work on the three Sea KINGs well under way. They comprise a yellow former RAF Search and Rescue Sea KING HAR3A and two Royal Navy HC4 ‘Junglies,’ which are expected to be flying by late-August.
Vector’s Steve Tamblyn, the Pakistan Navy Sea KING Project Manager, said: “The first one is due to fly in mid-August, then followed five days later by the second, and then five days after that by the third. “
The other four aircraft are being used for spares. A HC4 and HAR 3A, will be shipped to Karachi, along with the three airworthy examples in October. The other two HC4s have been completed stripped of parts which will be sent alongside the five helicopters.
A team of up to six personnel will go to Pakistan Navy Ship (PNS) MEHRAN on the edge of Karachi to rebuild the helicopters and support the first test flights. An official induction ceremony is expected to take place at PNS MEHRAN in early December. Working alongside Vector’s team is a four man Pakistan Navy technical team led by Lt.Cdr. Asif. The three helicopters will work alongside six Mk45/45As which in recent years have been upgraded with SEASPRAY 5300 AESA maritime radars in the ASW/ASuW role.
More Sea KING Work
In the last couple of years, after the last UK Sea KINGs were retired Vector has worked on a number of the legacy helicopter for European customers. In late 2015, the company prepared three Sea KINGs for the Norway and Belgium Air Forces, which were flown to their new homes before being used for spares. It also sourced six Sea KINGs for spares to support the German Navy Sea KING fleet under a NATO Support and Procurement Agency contract. Vector has also been contracted to re-paint two former Royal Navy Sea KING Mk 5s for Portland-based Helicopter Operations (Heli-Ops), which has a deal to train German Navy Sea KING SAR pilots.
While the RAF’s PUMA and Royal Navy MERLIN fleets are worked on by other companies, the LYNX, CHINOOK and Sea KING work was rolled back to DARA and taken on by Vector. Nigel Amphlett, Government Business Executive for Vector Aerospace International and a former Royal Navy LYNX Force Commander told MONS: “We went from over 500,000 man hours to 1 million work hours with same workforce, applying lean principles.”
It led to the company converting to a Pulse line that saw the helicopters move down the production hangar at set times. People had to work smarter to keep up with the helicopters.
Of its CHINOOK work, Vector is justifiably proud as Amphlett continues: “We supported the UK MOD in Afghanistan from 2008-2014 continuously while being sub contracted by Boeing. Initially in Kandahar and then Bastion when everyone moved there. Today, we are continuing to work on RAF CHINOOKs at our Gosport site, with the Through Life Capability Sustainment (TLCS) contract."
The Royal Navy and Army LYNX overhaul contract finished in 2016, in line with most of the UK fleet’s retirement (although several of the more powerful AH9A soldier on) but it still works on foreign LYNX. The French, Portuguese and German Navy continue to send their examples to Fleetlands which hopes to continue the work in the future. More GAZELLE work is also in their sights, as Amphlett explains: “We have won a contract to carry out safety modifications on the Army’s GAZELLE fleet. Work has already been completed on the Middle Wallop aircraft, and the Northern Ireland ones are next and then the British Army Training Unit in Suffield (BATUS) used by the Army for its training needs in Canada. The work covers 24 and we have just tendered for two aircraft that are being brought out of storage increasing the number to 26. We are trying to re-establish ourselves in the GAZELLE market, so not surprisingly we are looking at overseas opportunities too. On the back of the experience we have gained on the GAZELLE programme we are up to speed on everything including the flight testing.”
If the MOD is taking them out of service it proves there is still life in them veterans yet!