There are few scenes that can match the aura of a helicopter coming in to land on a small deck at night. If that helicopter happens to be one with contra-rotating rotors and blade-tip lights, it adds an indescribable dimension. There’s a special kind of respect due for the people who operate and maintain them.
With a crew of single pilot, a tactical coordinator (Tacco), and sensor operator (Senso) for sonar missions, the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Kamov-28 or Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Kamov-31 from Indian Navy (IN) invokes crew skills like no other. It shouldn’t, purists may argue. Who am I to complain? Maybe Russians designed these helicopters and ‘installed’ crew as an afterthought!
The dark night sea is not of one’s choosing. There are no diversions except the deck you took wings from. Radars and radios are forever in ‘tactical’ mode (basically, you can’t use them). Basic instruments from a ‘steam gauge’ era means you roll with the punches and rudder kicks, keeping your vestibular apparatus confused at all times. Operating these machines to full envelope is nothing short of a masterclass in crew coordination and resource management.
Ask any naval Kamov pilot how he dealt with a 2AM takeoff by moonless night after running around whole day managing ‘spares’ or secondary duties. Beads of perspiration and guts of steel are the first things that come to mind. Those who commanded ships that launched them off their decks have nothing but respect for KA-KV-KM crew. They take on the toughest missions under worst circumstances. To those COs who don’t share this sentiment, maybe you missed something.
The Indian Navy (IN) has since 1980s operated three variants of Kamovs. The Kamov-25s (Ka-25, NATO code ‘Halo’) were first to be inducted as the integral air ASW element of first three Russian Kashin-class destroyers (IN Ships Rana, Rajput & Ranjit). The Ka-25s were decommissioned in 2009. The ASW Kamov-28s (NATO code ‘Helix’) came with the last two ships of that class (Ranvir & Ranvijay), still in service. The shipborne Airborne Early Warning (AEW) variant Kamov-31 with an under-belly phased-array radar has been ‘eyes and ears’ of the fleet since induction early this millenium.
All three helicopters were designed around a ‘single-pilot’ concept long before automation, flight director, IFR & IMC entered our lexicon. Many of us would gladly bet our lives on the Kamov’s unfailing ‘Pakapa’ (PKP in Ruski for Flight Director Indicator or FDI) and the ‘Panapa’ (PNP in Ruski for Horizontal Situation Indicator) with ‘command pointers’. Those who never realised the secrets these devices held, sometimes paid with their lives.
Out at sea, there may be days (mostly nights) when you wish you could use help from a ‘doosra pilot‘. But not for the ‘Eagles’ (KV-28) or Falcons (KM-31). They are solitary reapers. A single cyclic stick & collective lever in cockpit constantly remind you of the pilot-in-loop indispensability. There is a certain bond that forms between crew members on a moonless night only Kamov crew can relate to.
All three variants of Kamovs operated by IN are coaxial with two sets of contra-rotating main rotors. This does away with the requirement of an anti-torque tail rotor, directing all power to the main rotors where it’s best invested. It also brings into play another gem of engineering: the Collective & Differential Pitch Change Mechanism (CDPCM) that transmits twin-engine torque to two sets of ‘contras’. It is a pure marvel of Russian engineering.
Differential pitch changes to the two rotors create conventional responses in cockpit through unconventional means. I remember reading about the CDPCM during type-rating and sending out a silent applause (and prayer) “may the twain never meet”. Because when they do, two rotors spinning at high speed can have a ‘blade rendezvous’.
Unlike ‘Rendezvous with Simi Garewal‘, here everything comes to an instant, disastrous end. There have been accidents where ‘Blade RV’ was noted as a ‘probable cause’, but there were no conclusive findings since we suck at accident investigation and follow-through. At least 3 KAs / KMs were lost to ground resonance – a known hazard for helicopters. At those slim distances, you cannot give ‘shockers to rotors’.
The simplicity of design, robustness of structure, mechanical systems, powerplant and transmission means these machines never stayed on ground for long. If anything, sensors (or humans) sometimes proved the weak link for Kamovs in Indian inventory. That will (hopefully) change with the IN’s mid-life upgrade (MLU) program that seeks to add teeth and firepower to the ASW KV-28. First batch of KV-28s ex-life extension and MLU will return to the Eagles’ Eyrie, couple of years from now. Numbers are debatable, effect won’t be, those on scene tell me with the modesty of Eagles who know their prey.
The KM-31 with its belly-mounted AEW radar is a veritable fulcrum around which the fleet maneuvers at sea. Quietly occupying vanguard 8-10000 feet above MSL, KM-31 crews from IN have honed their skills to a point where fighters scrambling from an enemy airbase are picked up on their takeoff roll. Other specialists then set to work upon the targets.
Shipboard interface has been a mixed bag. The coaxial design means a ‘tall’ helicopter, since two sets of rotors are mounted on a single mast. The 4-wheeled landing gear requires a wire-pulley traversing gear to move 12 tons of steel from deck to hangar and back. There is no deck lock or recovery-assist system. SHOLs are conservative for takeoff, landing and traversing.
On the ‘plus’ side, simple blade-folding system of this 6-bladed coaxial rotor system is still a delight for deck crew. A team of two with basic equipment can fold rotors in under 2 mins while (Sea)kings of the sea confound themselves with a complicated, fully-automatic blade-fold system that decides whether you can start your engines or not. In the 21st century, nothing can beat the Kamov’s blade-fold system for sheer simplicity and fitness for afloat operations.
Old timers will agree that if a Kamov engine fires up and the rotors start to move under power, nothing can hold you back except a crew without balls to match.
That explains why there are two sets of people in the world I know: the ‘contras’ who have been there, done that; and others who wondered how.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy ‘Falcons’ – Kamov-31 crew of Indian Navy. Image is property of Indian Navy and is to be used only with permission.