|Philippine Air Force W-3A Sokols of the 505th Search and Rescue Group at Clark Air Force City.|
Orders for more units is starting to become impossible due to some issues on the door opening.
The Department of National Defense (DND) also made a follow-on statement a few days later saying that the Sokol was indeed flawed for the said mission, and instead will be assigned as a search and rescue (SAR) helicopter for the PAF's 505th SAR Group. DND Secretary Voltaire Gazmin even said that the 8 Sokols ordered from Poland will be the last order of its type, effectively killing hope for possible additional Sokols for the PAF in the near future.
|One of the PAF W-3A Sokols during testing in Poland.|
But is there really something wrong with the W-3A Sokol? Was it not really up to the PAF's standards as what was described by the president?
Budget and Pricing:
In 2008, the DND initiated a bidding for 8 Combat Utility Helicopters (CUH) with a budget of Php 3 billion (US$68 million), including an Integrated Logistics Support (ILS) package. The helicopters are to complement the venerable Bell UH-1H Huey, and may become its successor in the future. The new CUH shall be brand new, capable of night operation, capable of 3,000 lbs. minimum payload with full fuel, with side door gun mounts for M60D machine guns, and fast access for troops. An initial bid failed with the only bidder, AgustaWestland was declared ineligible. A rebid was launched in the same year, with AgustaWestland and PZL Swidnik being the 2 bidders, but it failed again and made the government go for negotiated purchase.
As the DND went to negotiated purchase, only PZL Swidnik participated and has made the cut and a contract worth Php 2.86 billion for 8 PZL W-3A Sokol helicopters was made.
|Reportedly AgustaWestland separately offered the AW109 helicopter to the PAF, but it did not met specifications although it met the budget.|
Photo taken from deagel.com.
It was known that there were several companies interested in participating in the first bid attempt but did not submit a bid due to to the payload requirements that exceed the meager budget allocated by the DND. MaxDefense sources pointed that there were only a limited candidates that meet the specifications and budget allocated by the DND, as helicopter models like Bell's 412EP, Sikorsky's S-76, AgustaWestland AW139 and Eurocopter EC155 Enlarged Dauphin all far exceed the budget of approximately $8 to 8.5 million apiece. Only PZL Swidnik was able to deliver a product that can meet both the DND's specifications and budget, clearly winning the deal. If the DND allocated a larger budget that time, MaxDefense believes that the DND and PAF would have a lot more choices and may have even opted for another model.
|Technical drawing of a W-3 Sokol with dimensions.|
Drawing taken from PZL Swidnik webiste.
|A comparison between a Bell 412 and AgustaWestland AW139 showing dimensions.|
Drawing taken from EMQ Helicopter Rescue website.
Door Opening Size:
The Sokol's design was derived from the old Soviet Mil Mi-2 Hoplite light helicopter. Soviet helicopter designs differ from those of Western ones, which include the absence of wide opening side doors. The Sokol have sliding doors on both sides but unlike most Western designs like the Huey, they are narrow and not aligned with each other with the port side at the forward part of the cabin, while the starboard side door is at the rear of the cabin.
|Just looking at the technical drawing above, it already shows how small the port side door is.|
According to information provided by PAF sources, the Sokol's port side door opening is at around 36-37 inches (3 feet) wide. The starboard side door opening's width might not be totally different. In comparison, the UH-1H Huey used by the PAF has a sliding door opening 74 inches (more than 6 feet) wide, and have a maximum of 92 inches (more than 7.5 feet) wide when the forward suicide doors are opened. As expected, the Bell 412 has almost the same door opening dimensions as its older stablemate. But surprisingly the larger and newer Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 Black Hawk has a door opening size of 68 inches (more than 5.5 feet) wide only, or less than that of the Huey but still larger than that of the Sokol. The door opening size difference is too large between the Huey and Sokol, that it's even obviously easy to compare just by looking at the helicopters itself.
|A technical drawing of a UH-1H cargo compartment showing dimensions.|
Drawing taken from Globalsecurity.org.
|Surprisingly, the Black Hawk's door opening is smaller than the Huey's at 68 inches wide, but still wider than that of the W-3 Sokol.|
Drawing taken from GlobalSecurity.org.
From the beginning the PAF should have known the helicopter's door sizes and they could match it with their required door opening specifications, unless if the DND did not include such provision. Missing this provision on the requirement specifications will indeed make the Sokol eligible for the program, not the fault of PZL Swidnik and the Sokol helicopter.
|A PAF W-3A Sokol shown with the swivel-mounted door gun. The size of the door with regards to the crew can be seen, as well as the gun's position. Make your own analysis based on this photo.|
The DND specified that an M60 mount shall be installed on both door openings, which is usually a standard set-up on combat utility helicopters. PZL Swidnik was able to meet such requirement, but as discussed earlier the door opening is quite narrow at only 3 feet wide, and with the door mounted gun in operation, the gunner himself becomes an obstruction, not to mention the gun's swivel mount and the gun as well.
|This Sokol shows a machine gun mounted on the side window, keeping the door clear from obstruction.|
An option done by other Sokol users was to mount the machine guns on the fixed side windows, and slinging them using a modified mounting attached on the sidewall on top of the window. This is not a permanent solution nor the best solution as the gunner's view is obstructed and the fixing is not as tough as the standard door mounted type. A video in Youtube of Polish W-3 Sokols in action in Iraq can be seen below. Take note of the said mountings:
This is not the first time that such door gun position issue has happened. A similar case is present on PAF's Sikorsky S-76 helicopters, which were originally designated by the PAF as helicopter gunships and some as rescue helicopters. When the PAF opted to install door guns, the not-so-wide side doors of the S-76 is also present as the swivel mounted door guns and gunner were also blocking the door opening. But unlike the case of the Sokol, it was not much of an issue since the S-76 were not used as combat utility helicopters, so it is not expected to carry troops into combat as often as the UH-1H Huey.
|The door gun of the gunship configuration of the Sikorsky S-76 in PAF service. Note the fixed swivel-type mount blocking the narrow side door openings as well.|
Photo taken from Philskies.net forum.
|Compare the Sokol and S-76 door openings to this PAF UH-1H Huey, with its doors opened and gunner present. Take note the space on the gunner's right hand side.|
So in this issue brought out by the government, MaxDefense believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the PZL W-3A Sokol helicopter. It is a very nice helicopter, and is a great addition to the PAF. Even PAF pilots attested to its capability and power in previous news interviews. It was able to comply to the specifications and budget set by the DND and PAF.
So what's the problem?
In MaxDefense' opinion, the problem is not the helicopter, but from the DND and PAF. There were actually 2 problems that MaxDefense sees in this deal: one is that the specifications "probably" did not include the door opening size and space considerations of mounting the door gun plus enough space for troop insertion or extraction while the gun is in use; and two, the government did not allocate enough budget to make the bidding more competitive by opening it to more helicopter manufacturers and models.
The DND and PAF's solution was to transfer the W-3A Sokols from combat utility helicopter duties to search and rescue missions. But MaxDefense believes that there are issues on this decision as well. In search and rescue, wide doors are also very important to have faster access for stretchers or rescuers using the hoists. Rapid egress and ingress is also required. So the same problem will happen when using the Sokol for SAR missions. Also, if the PAF decides to place them for SAR duties, it must allocate funds to "re-dress" the helicopters for such missions. Currently the Sokols are still covered by the manufacturer's warranty that keeps the PAF from making the changes from its combaat utility set-up.
Instead, MaxDefense' opinion is for the Sokols to be used for other missions, specifically as a VIP transport or support helicopter for the Presidential Airlift Wing. VIP helicopters don't need the wide door opening requirement. Besides, the Sokol is a twin engine helicopter, is night flying capable, and is currently in basic configuration. These requirements are also needed for VIP helicopters. Once it's warranty is over, the PAF could easily refit its Sokols for VIP transport, and replace the Bell 412EP and complement the lone S-70A Black Hawk. MaxDefense sources indicate that the Presidential Air Wing is actually looking for new VIP helicopters, and MaxDefense believes that this is the right aircraft. The Office of the President could pay for the helicopter's transfer to the Presidential fleet, including refitting, and transferred budget could be used to re-open a bid for new, more compliant combat utility helicopters.
|A Polish Air Force W-3 configured for VIP transport duties. This type of mission does not require wide door openings, unlike the combat utility or search and rescue missions which require them.|
As for the 3 remaining PAF PAW Bell 412EP's, these helicopters would be better off as rescue helicopters with proper refitting for such duties. Or they could even be the basis of a possible deal to make the Bell 412 as the PAF's new combat utility helicopter to replace the venerable UH-1H Huey. MaxDefense sources indicate that the Bell 412EP is indeed a strong competitor should a new bidding for combat utility helicopter proceeds.