In the year in which the Estonian Air Force celebrates its 100th anniversary and NATO celebrates its 70th South West Aviation Photographers sent Matt Sudol to the Baltic state to spend some time with two of the country’s helicopter operators.
The Estonian Air Force can trace its roots back to November 1918 when an Air Force unit was created under the command of the Army’s engineering unit. Soon after the first aircraft was received in the form of a Farman HF-30, acquired from the communists during the War of Independence. Between 1919 and 1933 the Estonian Air Force operated eight Short 184’s mainly in a training role but also to ferry mail between Tallinn and Helsinki. A replica of one is now displayed in the Estonian Maritime Museum, located in an old sea plane hangar in Tallinn. In the build-up to World War Two the Estonian Air Force had on charge approximately eighty airframes, including Bristol Bulldogs, Hawker Harts and Avro Ansons. The outbreak of war meant that the British government had to cancel plans to export Spitfires and Lysanders to the Baltic state as they were desperately needed by the Royal Air Force. With Soviet forces invading Estonia on the 17th June 1940 the Estonian Air Force was rebadged as the 22nd Territorial Corps of the Soviet Army.
Estonia regained independence in the Battle of the Song in 1991 and on the 16th December that year the Estonian Air Force was “built from scratch by a generation of young and talented airman”. Estonia is in fact the smallest nation in NATO to have a dedicated Air Force. Whilst the Estonian Air Force does not have sufficient resources to develop indigenous air power they do have a number of assets which form a key part of the NATO integrated Air Defence and Missile System which, given the proximity of Estonia to Russia, can only be seen as a good thing. Estonia has deployed land forces, including Forward Air Controllers as part of the British led Operation Herrick in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Estonian Air Forces fleet currently consists of two rugged Antonov An-2 Colt biplanes in addition to a PZL M-28 recently acquired from the United States Military, used in the troop transport role. For heavy lift Estonia has a 1.4% stake in NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability based in Papa, Hungary and they can call upon the use of the three Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs as and when they need to. Aero L-39C Albatross aircraft are leased from a private Estonian company when needed to carry out training with ground troops such a Forward Air Controllers. Rotary assets consist of four Robinson R44s and it was with the Estonian Air Force Helicopter Squadron that I would be spending much of my time with at Ämari Air Base.
Ämari Air Base, located just over twenty miles south-west of Estonia’s capital Tallinn, is the country’s only military airbase and is home to the Estonian Air Force fleet of Antonov An-2s, Robison R44s and single PZL M28 Skytruck, as well as the rotational fleet of air defence fighters from NATO partner nations as part of the Baltic Air Policing mission. At the time of my visit the Czech Air Force with their SAAB JAS-39C Gripens were on QRA standby and I was lucky to witness a practice scramble by two of the fighters. Rebuilding of the base after regaining independence was slow due to the heavy devastation left by the Soviets when they left. However, in September 2010 the renewed runway was officially opened. Since then the air base has become fully NATO interoperable with United States Air Force assets for Operation Atlantic Resolve being stationed there, as well as the previously described Baltic Air Policing detachments. Talking about the Atlantic Resolve deployments former President Of The United States Barack Obama stated “we agree with our Estonian allies that an ideal location to host and support these exercises would be the Ämari Air Base here in Estonia”.
Ämari was previously a Soviet naval airfield and home to the 321st and/or 170th Naval Shturmovik Aviation Regiment and their Sukhoi SU-24 Fencer aircraft. The only trace left of the Soviet era is a small cemetery in the neighbouring village to those naval aviators who lost their lives flying from the air base.
The Estonian Air Force’s Helicopter Squadron, based at Ämari Air Base, operates four Robinson R44 helicopters and has been established since 1994 when it received three Mil Mi-2 Hoplites. In 2002 these Mi-2s were replaced with four R44s donated by the United States of America. The R44 is a US built four-seater light helicopter. Designed by Frank D Robinson and first flown on the 31st March 1990. It has a semi rigid two bladed main rotor, a two bladed tail rotor and is equipped with skids. The aircraft is very popular with flying schools and privateers worldwide but is only used by four air arms in the world.
The Robinsons are employed in a variety of tasks, including surveillance, underslung load transportation, VIP Transport, Search and Rescue and Airborne Sniper platform as well as supporting exercising ground troops. To carry out this wide range of tasks each R44 has different mission equipment fitted. All four airframes are capable of Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operations however they are limited to Visual Flight Rules conditions and have no anti-icing system, however it isn’t the low temperature as you would expect in the Baltic state but the cloud base that limits operations. The Estonian Civil Aviation Administration stipulates that a minimum of 1,000ft cloud base is required to fly, it’s understood that the Estonian Military is in the process of establishing their own flight rules, allowing aircraft to operate safely with lower weather parameters. Pilot training is normally carried out on civilian Robinson R22s, with pilots converting to the R44 after receiving between 100-120 hours of flight training. after a further 110 hours of training is conducted on the R44 the pilot is deemed operational. Training on a similar type airframe gives huge benefits to the students when converting onto the operational aircraft as they are already familiar with the aircraft’s characteristics. One difference which we were told that does catch pilots off guard is the R44’s hydraulic assisted main rotor controls, something that the R22 doesn’t have, which leads to pilots putting in larger inputs into the controls than is necessary.
Two airframes (Yellow 65 and 66) are fitted with the Forward-Looking Infra Red (FLIR) nose-mounted cameras and belly mounted search light. These two airframes enable the squadron to conduct surveillance and Search and Rescue duties, although the Police and Border Force carry out the majority of the country’s SAR tasking due to the limitations of the Robinson, in particular the lack of a rescue hoist. However, it has been known on a very small number of occasions for the Air Force helicopters to put down and pick up the lost or injured individual. Due to the technology needed for the camera and light one of the two rear seats has been permanently removed to make way for the equipment. Image downlink is possible via two different methods, the first a traditional A to B line of sight method which requires the ground units to have specialist equipment in order to receive the images. The second a very revolutionary method designed and tested in-house by the squadron which enables any device with a secure internet connection to be able to receive the images.
Yellow 63 is fitted with a cargo hook which enables the crew to deliver up to 250kg of underslung load such as food and water to exercising troops. It also has pop-out floats which allows the aircraft to operate over water. Should the need arise the pilot can deploy these floats and make a landing on water if there is an emergency as the Robinson is certified to land in waves of up to 30cm. Speaking with a pilot who has had experience of landing in open water this can be very uncomfortable.
The final airframe, Yellow 64, for me was probably the most unique of the four helicopters as not only is it one of a very small number of Robinsons used by an air arm but it also had fixed floats which when needed can be removed and replaced with the pop out floats. During my visit the fixed floats were fitted to the aircraft and these fixed floats are used primarily to train new pilots on landing on water on a nearby lake.
During Exercise Tractable, part of Operation Cabrit, Britain’s participation in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, Estonian Air Force helicopter crews were able to train alongside Wildcat AH.1s from Yeovilton-based 1 Regiment, Army Air Corps of the British Army. Crews were able fly in each other’s aircraft which gave both nations a greater understanding of how they operate as part of the wider NATO force.
Whilst Estonia’s Baltic partners Latvia and Lithuania have both recently confirmed they plan to upgrade their helicopters to the Sikorsky Blackhawk, the future of rotary wing aviation in Estonia is still unknown. We understand that within the next five years all four aircraft would require a major overhaul which would require the airframes being shipped back to the United States of America, this in itself would be a costly task, it’s not known if the Estonian Ministry of Defence would go ahead with this or instead procure another type of aircraft or even disband the squadron. The oldest aircraft in the fleet, Yellow 64, has less than 100 flight hours left before it requires its overhaul.
Formed in 2010 when the national police force, border guard and citizenship and migration authority merged, the Police and Border Guard Aviation Unit is independent of the Air Force and reports back to the Ministry of Interior. It can trace its roots back to 1992 with the creation of the Estonian Border Guard Flight Department, later known as the National Border Guard Squadron operating two Let L-410 Turbolet fixed wing aircraft donated by the German Air Force and were operated up until 2018. 1995 saw the first rotary assets delivered to the group, now known as the Estonian National Aviation Group, and these helicopters were five former East German Mil Mi-8 Hips. Four airframes would see active service with the fifth being used as a spares donor. The helicopter squadron of the National Aviation Group was stood up in the wake of the tragic MS Estonia disaster, the second deadliest peacetime sinking of a European vessel after the Titanic with 852 lives lost when the vessel sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994. In 2007 the aviation group received their first of three AgustaWestland AW139s, an Italian-built medium sized twin-engined helicopter with subsequent deliveries in 2008 and 2010. It was during 2010 that the last Mil Mi-8 Hip was grounded, several of which are now preserved in various locations around Estonia. As well as the three AW139s the group operate a Beechcraft Super King Air 350ER utilised in the Maritime Surveillance/ Pollution Control role and a Cessna 172 used for flight training and border patrol duties.
The AW139s can carry out a wide range of taskings including search and rescue, utility, fire-fighting, border patrol and medical transfer. Unlike UK Search and Rescue assets, the rear crew members in the Estonian Police and Border Guard aren’t trained as paramedics but only have limited first aid skills, meaning that for any medical transfers specialist teams who have been trained to care for patients whilst onboard the 139 are deployed. The unit doesn’t carry out Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) flights where a helicopter is used to transfer critically ill patients from the scene of an incident to a hospital as we would see air ambulances carry out in the UK. Only hospital to hospital transfers are carried out by the Estonian AW139s and sometimes these flights can take the crew as far afield as Helsinki in Finland.
Operating hours for both fixed wing and rotary are 0900hrs – 1700hrs with a reaction time of 15 minutes with crews being based on-site. Outside of these hours crews respond from home and are required to be airborne within one hour from the initial request. The King Air operates until 0000hrs with the AW139s operating twenty-four hours.
Based at Tallinn international airport the border guard aircraft are able to operate 24 hours a day seven days a week in the harshest of conditions utilising all of the infrastructure that an international airport has to offer, including instrument approach systems and air traffic control and can operate self-sufficiently with their own maintenance staff providing ground handling, refuelling and maintenance . As well as their main base at Tallinn, the Police and Border Guard Aviation Unit have a secondary base on the island of Saaremaa, 200km south-west of Tallinn. Saaremaa also gives resilience to the Tallinn based crews should they encounter bad weather and are unable to return to Tallinn or should a long-range mission require refuel before returning to their home base.
Whilst initially the AW139s all look the same there are a few small differences between the three with ES-PWA and ES-PWB both being the short nose variant, having a slightly different avionics fit to ES-PWC which is a long nose variant. Charlie also has a dual hoist for redundancy and a main rotor anti-icing system, something which wasn’t available at the time of procurement of Alpha and Bravo. . During my visit the oldest AW139, ES-PWA, was away in Belgium receiving its major servicing, something which happens every four years or 1,200hrs, whichever comes first and, takes some four months. Helicopter pilots join the unit from two different paths; the first direct from the Estonian Aviation Academy in Tartu where they learn to fly on R22 helicopters, the second path is pilots retiring from the Estonian Air Force. All crew are Estonian citizens and are directly employed by the Estonian Police and Border Guard. Crews can expect to get 200 flying hours each year with shift patterns allowing for a primary on duty crew which will respond to any emergencies that will come in and a secondary supernumerary crew whose primary duties would include any scheduled planned tasking and training flights. Whilst there are no plans to bring Alpha and Bravo up to the same standard as Charlie the unit are currently looking at upgrading the mission equipment, in particular the FLIR camera where technology has vastly improved since the procurement of the aircraft almost ten years ago and mobile phone signal location equipment, which would assist in the recovery of missing persons in Estonia’s dense wooded countryside
Report by Matt Sudol
© South West Aviation Photographers 2019