Military transport aircraft with the white and red checkerboard fly to Western European countries, Scandinavia, the Middle and Far East or Africa. They execute a variety of different tasks, so it is crucial for the fleet of Polish transport aircraft to grow and develop.
Military transport aviation has for years been overshadowed by combat aviation, as it is multirole fighters that have the largest influence on the national defense potential. Few people remember that transport aircraft were actually the first in the Polish Air Force, long before the F-16s, to execute flights to war zones. Transport machines are the ones that begin and finish every military mission: it was none other than the An-26, followed by the C-295M, and later the C-130, that landed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The main tasks of military transport aircraft, i.e. carrying people and cargo, have remained the same for years. However, the circumstances of executing the tasks and the difficulty level of air missions have changed. People operating these machines do not have any reasons to feel incompetent. “They are perfectly trained and prepared to operate in times of peace, crisis and war. They have been taught to fly in tactical formations, in night-vision goggles, they are able to land on unpaved surfaces, drop people and equipment, secure the most difficult missions of special operations or airborne forces,” enumerates LtGen (Pil) Cezary Wiśniewski, Deputy General Commander of the Polish Armed Forces. “That’s why we are planning to invest in military transport aviation. Soon, our Hercules aircraft fleet will grow, and expand even further in the upcoming future,” adds the general.
The breakthrough moment for the Polish military transport aviation was the exchange of the fleet at the start of this century, when the obsolete An-2 and An-26 aircraft were withdrawn from service and replaced with machines of much better performance, with advanced avionics, communication and navigation systems. Our aircraft, the CASA C-295M and the C-130 Hercules started landing on all continents of the world – they have operated in places such as Mali, the Central African Republic, northern Norway, Vietnam, Nepal, the USA, as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Decades go by, and our aviators still have their plates full. Some missions end, other begin. After many years, our soldiers finished their service in Afghanistan, but they are still in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. There is also a growing need for air transport in connection with intensive military training in Poland and abroad. And we go to every place where our soldiers are,” assures LtCol Artur Fijołek, acting Head of Training of the 3rd Wing of Transport Aviation. The officer adds that apart from operational flights for various service branches of the armed forces, the soldiers of the 3rd Wing also execute tasks commissioned by agencies and institutions outside the Ministry of National Defense, as well as for our allies.
BrigGen (Pil) Wojciech Pikuła, Commander of the 3rd Wing, also talks about the new challenges awaiting military transport aviation. He mentions replacing old aircraft with more advanced machines, but also higher quality of training aviators in Poland and abroad, and implementation of new procedures of operation and cooperation within the crew, which directly influence the safety of undertaken flights. “The crews of the 3rd Wing secure air transport within the frame of the Polish Military Contingent on an ongoing basis. On top of that, our aircraft provide humanitarian aid in many places on the globe. Wherever people are facing natural disasters and catastrophes, aircraft with the white and red checkerboard appear to help. It was particularly noticeable during the pandemic,” says BrigGen Pikuła.
The crews of the C-295Ms and the C-130s transported people from territories under the threat of COVID-19 pandemic, evacuated soldiers infected with the virus, delivered medical supplies to various regions of the world. “Before the pandemic, we were focused on securing units engaged in foreign missions and soldier training. When COVID struck, many tasks were halted, which doesn’t mean we flew any less. We mainly executed humanitarian aid and medical evacuation flights. Now that the pandemic is in retreat, the proportions have changed again,” says an officer of the 33rd Air Base.
It is this unit that plays a particularly important role in the Polish air transport. Currently, the pilots from the base in Powidz, equipped with five C-130 Hercules aircraft, spend 30% more time in the air than a year ago. Intensified training of the Polish army is only one reason for that. The crews from the 33rd Base also execute flights with military aid provided by the EU and NATO states to the Ukrainian armed forces.
“Hercules is a large transport aircraft of crucial importance to the Polish Armed Forces. It is the go-to machine when we have to carry a big load to a faraway location, or operate in a warfare zone. That’s why, according to the guidelines set by the MoND authorities, we decided to procure five additional aircraft in the H variant. It will significantly increase the transport capabilities of the Polish Armed Forces, as well as the accessibility of machines for operational flights,” says LtGen (Pil) Cezary Wiśniewski. The Deputy General Commander of the Polish Armed Forces explains that the global tendency is to maintain readiness of transport aircraft on the level of 50–70%. “It means that out of five Hercules machines, we usually have two or three available on a daily basis, but if any of them requires service work, the number of available machines falls. If the fleet is expanded to ten aircraft, we will always have four or five ready-to-fly machines, which will double our operational capabilities,” explains the general, giving an example: “If we have to fly to Iraq with a load of over a dozen tons, we must send two Hercules machines – the main machine and an auxiliary one. If we don’t have another C-130 available, we must use two smaller C-295 aircraft – and sometimes even two CASAs are not enough.”
Aviators themselves are also happy to be getting the new machines. “It’s high quality equipment which will greatly improve the timeliness of executed tasks. The army is growing, so the number of transport aircraft needs to grow as well,” say the pilots from Powidz.
Five on the Horizon
The decision to procure additional transport aircraft was made by the MoND in 2017. The analytical and conceptual phase of the operational program “Drop” was launched in 2018. A year later, the MoND’s Armament Inspectorate (today Armament Agency) invited companies to the so-called technical dialog, i.e. presenting information on offered machines to the army. This coincided with the decision made by the US government to reduce their own fleet of Hercules aircraft in the H variant. Washington offered to the governments of several states procurement of the aircraft within the EDA (Excess Defense Articles) procedure. According to the procedure, the recipient bares only the costs of restoring the machines’ good technical condition. From January 2019 to June 2020, such offer was extended to, among others, Tunisia, Romania, the Philippines, Morocco, Jordan, Colombia, Chile and Poland. Out of all the mentioned states, Poland was offered the largest number of Hercules aircraft – as many as five
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the contract was signed as late as on April 12, 2021. It assumed that Poland would pay a little over 14 million zlotys for the machines. Regular PDM (Programmed Depot Maintenance) work, obligatory once in five years, necessary to introduce the machines back to service, is to be executed by the Polish Armed Forces. The task was entrusted to Military Aviation Works No 2 (WZL No 2) in Bydgoszcz, a part of the Polish Armaments Group.
The representatives of the Polish army emphasize that the procurement of Hercules in the H variant will significantly reinforce our Air Force. The machines will not only be 15 years younger than the currently used C-130Es, produced at the beginning of the 1970s, but also more advanced. The biggest difference between them are the engines. The four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines installed in the H variant have horsepower of 4,591 each. Those in the E variant, i.e. the Allison T56-A-7, not only have smaller horsepower (4,200), but also use up more fuel. Another difference between the two versions is avionics. “The navigation devices and communication systems used in the C-130H are more advanced and more precise than those installed in the E variant,” explains LtCol Marek Pawlak, the spokesperson for the General Command of the Polish Armed Forces. As for functionality, he adds that the pilots will notice most changes in the flight director systems (FDS), used to control the flight path, as well as the autopilot. “In the C-130H aircraft, the GPS will be connected to the IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] system,” says LtCol Pawlak. In the procured machines, many systems that often failed in the C-130E have been improved. One example is the air-conditioning. “The solutions used in the C-130H, in comparison to the C-130E, are less prone to failure and pump more air into the fuselage,” explains LtCol Pawlak.
The first of the procured C-130Hs, with the registration number 85-0035, came to Poland in July, the second one – 85-0036 – in October. The depot maintenance of the first machine at WZL No 2 will last until the end of next year, and it will enter service no earlier than at the beginning of 2024.
It is still unclear when the other three C-130H will arrive in Poland. Interestingly enough, Poland and the USA have modified the contract signed last year, so that the machines would be sold to us within the Ramp to Ramp (R2R), not the EDA procedure. This entails that the recipient is delivered aircraft ready for service, which do not require, for example, PDM work. The R2R procedure was already implemented in December 2021, when Americans delivered three C-130H machines to Jordan. For the Polish Air Force, the change of the procurement procedure for the remaining three machines would significantly accelerate the process. The aircraft could be introduced into service shortly after installing domestic communication systems in them. Time will show if this is ultimately the case, as the R2R procedure can mean additional costs. “If we receive aircraft with a freshly done PDM, we will have to pay for it. On the other hand, if they are machines that will undergo the maintenance work in a year, two, or three, their value will be different. It is possible, however, that we will receive an offer to procure the machines at a good price, with an acceptable amount of flight hours and after maintenance. We are facing difficult negotiations, but I wouldn’t prejudge their outcome at this stage,” says LtGen Cezary Wiśniewski.
Preparing the Crews
The General Command of the Polish Armed Forces admits that introducing the new Hercules aircraft into service does not mean withdrawing the machines in the older E variant. All the more so as the technicians and engineers at WZL No 2 have significantly raised their standard in the recent years. The engine rotor blades and the avionics are among the newly modernized elements. Further maintenance of the older aircraft and the possible increase of the servicing costs are going to influence the decision on keeping the aircraft in service or their withdrawal.
The pilots point to the engine power and the possibility to operate in any place of the world. “It’s a machine with global possibilities. The flight range depends on the carried load. We can fly non-stop for 13 hours with a small load, or less with a load of 20 tons. On top of that, Hercules can land where other aircraft cannot,” say the aviators from Powidz.
One of the upcoming priorities of the 33rd Base command will be training the crews of the C-130s. Within the next several years, the unit will need twice as many first pilots, co-pilots, navigators and technicians for the C-130. “The C-130H aircraft don’t differ much from the C-130E, so we don’t think there will be any problems with training the aviators of the 3rd Wing. Some of them have if fact already flown such machines during the training in the USA, so we’re ready to receive and put the new aircraft into operation,” emphasizes BrigGen (Pil) Wojciech Pikuła.
One of the aviators trained on the C-130H is Karol, in the rank of lieutenant (upon the request of the 33rd Base command, we do not give names of their pilots), who, shortly after graduating from the Polish Air Force Academy, was sent to a course at the base in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA. “I learned about the construction of the aircraft, procedures connected with planning the flight, navigation, radio communication. I had simulator and real air training on the C-130H aircraft. Having returned to Poland, switching to the E variant took me no more than a couple of days,” says the lieutenant. He also adds that there are more changes awaiting the personnel of the Aviation Engineering Service. The technicians and the engineers will work on completely different documentation and with new aircraft.
The command of the 3rd Wing and the General Command of the Polish Armed Forces unanimously say that the basic training for the C-130 still has to be done in the USA. The crew commanders training, advanced and tactical training will continue to be organized in Poland. “Americans have units which specialize in training and offer well-prepared instructors and training infrastructure, i.e. simulators. We don’t want to give that up. Moving basic training to Poland would mean additional work for the already busy 33rd Base. It would result in excluding aircraft from operational flights, and they must be available to the Polish Armed Forces,” emphasizes LtGen Wiśniewski.
The General Command of the Polish Armed Forces has announced that the procurement of five C-130H aircraft does not end the process of purchasing transport machines for our army. According to the operational program “Drop,” Poland is planning to buy 12 new transport aircraft, possibly Hercules in the J variant. This, in turn, creates new opportunities, earlier inaccessible to the Polish Armed Forces. One of them is the Rapid Dragon program, currently tested by the Americans. “A container with four JASSM long-range missiles is loaded onboard the C-130J. The container is then dropped with a parachute, and the missiles automatically explode. This will be a real breakthrough, introducing new quality in the tactical use of transport aviation. I hope our armed forces, equipped with the C-130Js, will be able to take advantage of such opportunities in the future,” concludes the Deputy General Commander of the Polish Armed Forces.
autor zdjęć: Sławek Hesja Krajniewski