THE Philippine Air Force on Monday received 10 brand new helicopters as part of the billion-peso modernization program for a country trying to build a minimum credible defense amid China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
Eight of the choppers are Bell-412 EPs worth P4.8 billion, which will be used for combat support and humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations. Three of these will be temporarily deployed to the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing to transport VIPs in the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit.
Video of the Philippine Air Force Brand New Helicopters
Five of the Bell-412 EPs will be deployed to the 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing. They were repainted similar to the vintage Huey choppers.
Two other brand new helicopters are the AgustaWestland 109Es which will be used for close air support, armed air reconnaissance, forward air control and armed escort. The Air Force is expecting six more of these in the coming months. All the eight attack helicopters are worth P3.4 billion.
The attack helicopters will be deployed to the 15th Strike Wing in Sangley Point Cavite. It is likened to the MD-520MG currently used in close air support. These choppers will be armed with .50 cal machine gun and rockets.
“We are still in the starting phase as far as our modernization program is concerned. As you have witnessed this morning we have brand new aircraft that came in lately but we expect more to come in before the year ends,” Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Delgado said.
“[Minimum credible defense] is still a long way to go. We are just starting. We are just starting our capability. We still have a lot of things to do but we are taking it one step at a time,” he added.
The modernization of the armed forces has been a “long and painstaking process,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin admitted in his remarks at the turnover ceremony.
“This is so, because the acquisition costs of our minimum requirements on materials and equipment for operational readiness are constrained by our financial capability,” he said.
“We, therefore, need to persevere and be contented with what we can afford, based on the priorities of our urgent operational needs and their financial affordability,” he added.
Air Force pilots also had to undergo training for the new helicopters. The AW109 attack helicopters are new to the inventory and selected pilots underwent training in Italy for several months.
Lt. Col. Randy Bance of the 15th Strike Wing said eight of them were trained by AgustaWestland in Sesto Calende in Italy for six months. A mix of junior and senior officers were picked based on their flying hours of the MD-520MG.
He said they have still to learn more of the night flying feature of the new choppers, one of the capabilities of the new acquisition.
The same group will have a follow-on training in Italy in the next few months. When two of the eight pilots reach 15 hours of flying time of the two new choppers, they will be allowed to become instructors and teach more pilots. Another two from the eight will become test pilots— the ones allowed to check the air worthiness of an aircraft.
The Bell-412EPs are not new to the Air Force since these are presidential choppers used for decades. But for the new choppers, 10 pilots underwent training in Texas as part of the package. Ten more co-pilots were locally trained.
The pilots for the Bell-412EPs come from 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing. They were previously Huey pilots before they were chosen based on their flying hours.
First Lieutenant Esther Joy Gonzales, one of the co-pilots, said that compared to Hueys, the Bell-412EPs are powered with two engines and built with autopilot systems.
Aside from the 10 new choppers, the Air Force is also expecting two more C295 medium lift aircraft from Spain, two CN-212i Light Lift Aircraft from Indonesia and 2 FA-50 lead-in fighter aircraft from South Korea.