Since entering service in 1983, nearly 400 BAe 146 regional jetliners and its later-build successor – the Avro RJ – have flown over 12 million hours in a wide variety of configurations and with operators across all seven continents.
RAF BAe 146 C Mk 3 taking off from Broughton North Wales after conversion
Although most aircraft have given, and continue to give, sterling service as a regional jetliner, the BAe 146/Avro RJ has proven capabilities as a freighter, as a Quick-Change passenger/freighter variant, as VIP aircraft, as a military transport and as an airborne scientific platform.
As the aircraft starts to leave mainstream airline service, so a second life is emerging. One recent application is as an aerial firefighting aircraft or Airtanker and it is clear that this is just one of many new avenues that could open up for this versatile aircraft to further unlock its capabilities.
Neptune BAe 146 Airtanker on a steep dive dropping retardant on to a fire
Designed from the outset to meet the demanding requirements of short-haul airline operations, the aircraft enjoys a 99% civil despatch reliability across the fleet, demonstrating its quality and the comprehensive support that is available.
Underpinned by the BAE Systems Regional Aircraft Total Support Programme, nose-to-tail aircraft support is available 24/7 providing operational and technical support, together with spares, rotables management, modifications and repairs to ensure that all aircraft fly to their maximum capability.
A rugged, high-wing design and four-engine performance gives the aircraft access to often inhospitable environments. Its short take-off and landing capabilities are well renowned and these include on narrow and unprepared runways, giving the BAe 146/Avro RJ a distinct advantage over competitor aircraft for restrictive runway operations. A three-engine ferry capability gives the aircraft reliability in even the most critical of difficulties.
Its low noise levels – proven over many years in the most demanding of noise-sensitive urban airport environments – is an added advantage for possible special operations where operational quietness could be vital. There is no noisy reverse thrust on landing for instance. Whilst easily meeting the current Stage 3 noise requirements, the BAe 146/Avro RJ also meets the proposed new Stage 4 levels.
Flexibility for the Royal Air Force
The BAe 146/Avro RJ aircraft are a family of jets and available in three sizes ranging from 70-112 seats. With 100% commonality of engines, flight deck and systems across the family, the aircraft offers the ultimate in flexible fleet solutions. This commonality across the fleet means that the flight crew can manage a wide variety of missions on the same aircraft type, saving on training and familiarisation time.
The cabin arrangement on the aircraft lends itself to a variety of flexible seating layouts. This can range from a pure passenger aircraft with four-, five-, or six-abreast seating, to a combination of these with a VIP area or to dedicated VIP layouts.
RAF BAe 146 CMK 3 interior showing seats and containers
Other possibilities when fitted with the rear fuselage 131 inch wide and 76 inch (3.33 m x 1.93m) high Large Freight Door include an all-cargo layout capable of carrying up to 12.5 tonnes in LD3 containers, pallets, awkwardly-shaped cargo or ULD igloos, or in the Quick Change role, the ability to re-configure from all-freight to a passenger layout using palletised seats in a very short time.
However for the RAF, BAE Systems Regional Aircraft, as the OEM, engineered further flexible solutions to meet the needs of the Service.
The UK Ministry of Defence acquired two BAe 146-200QC (Quick Change) aircraft in 2012 which they wanted to be in service as quickly as possible for use in the extraction phase of Operation Herrick – the Afghanistan campaign.
Known in RAF service as the BAe 146 C Mk.3, the two aircraft were converted under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) £15.5 million contract awarded to BAE Systems Regional Aircraft
BAE Systems’ engineers at Prestwick were responsible for the design and integration of the equipment to be fitted to the aircraft, the sourcing of the equipment and management of the supply chain and overall management of the conversion programme. The actual conversion was carried out at the Marshall Aviation Services (formerly Hawker-Beechcraft Ltd) facility at Broughton in North Wales under sub-contract to BAE Systems.
Among the military equipment fitted was a Defensive Aids System to enable these UOR aircraft to be protected to appropriate levels for aircraft in theatre in Afghanistan. Also installed was a Successor Identification Friend or Foe (SIFF) system.
A number of other upgrades were also installed including HF and UHF radio communications systems and a satellite communications system. An armoured flight deck was incorporated along with fuel tank inertion, air conditioning upgrades and a fire protection system in the baggage bay.
The cabin floor of the aircraft has a freight loading system which allows either palletised freight or passenger seating fixed to pallets to be rapidly installed. The passenger layout of 94 seats is to full commercial aircraft standards with interior trim, carpeting, toilet and galleys available front and rear and overhead passenger service units for each seat row and overhead luggage bins. There are also two large underfloor baggage holds.
In order to further broaden the versatility of this aircraft BAE Systems engineered two further interior options for the RAF. It sourced and received Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval for new cabin baggage platforms and containers and cargo pallets.
When installed on the aircraft this gives an alternative layout of 54 seats and a significant amount of carry-on baggage allowance in storage containers that can carry personal equipment and other bags. The containers and their associated pallet are fork-liftable, even when loaded to their maximum weight, so aiding rapid turnaround.
BAE Systems also cleared a palletised freight layout for use on these aircraft, rather than the usual BAe 146QC freight igloos, to allow easier trans-shipment of loads between differing aircraft types in the RAF transport fleet.
Both aircraft were converted on time and on budget and on delivery to the RAF’s No 32 (The Royal Squadron) Wing Commander Jon Beck, Officer Commanding of the Squadron stated: “I am delighted that these two very capable aircraft have been added to the squadron’s inventory. They will provide a welcome boost to our existing capability to support operations in Afghanistan and ensure that vital equipment and personnel get where they need to be, quickly and safely.”
The success of this conversion programme led to BAE Systems winning the Minister (DEST) Acquisition Award 2013. It is the highest accolade within the MoD that an individual or team can receive for acquisition excellence. This award was given to both the industrial team, led by BAE Systems Regional Aircraft, and the teams within the MoD that masterminded the procurement, military certification, operational aspects and entry into service of the aircraft.
The RAF’s 32 Squadron has operated two BAe 146 CC Mk 2 aircraft for many years, primarily in the VIP transport role from RAF Northolt in north-west London. This capability has also been enjoyed by Avro RJs operated by the Bahrain Defence Force, the Dubai Air Wing and the Amiri Royal Flight.
Cost-effective tactical airlifter….and more
Building on the success of the RAF conversion programme BAE Systems Regional Aircraft is promoting the concept of the Avro RJM as a very affordable and capable airlifter which can fill the gap between smaller aircraft and the larger military airlifters such as the Hercules.
Such an aircraft, sourced from the open market for a fraction of the price payable for a new-build transport aircraft, and modified to a standard similar to that of the RAF aircraft, could also be used to augment bigger airlifters in military service and thus reduce pressure on an existing air transport fleet.
The Avro RJM could take on a wide variety of non-tactical air transport roles, thereby prolonging the fatigue life on ageing tactical assets. However, with its proven performance capability it can realistically undertake some of the more challenging transport support roles, including operations from unpaved runways.
It could also become an effective replacement for the many smaller and ageing turboprop and jet transport aircraft that are still in service and used for transport and communication tasks, but nearing the end of their lives – aircraft such as the Antonov 24/26, BAe 748, Fokker 27, Fokker F28 – operated by air forces where budgetary constraints might not allow them to consider expensive, new-build transport aircraft. It is estimated that there are currently more than 1000 aircraft in service with over 100 air arms and many of these aircraft are in excess of 40 years old.
The Avro RJ can be acquired for only a few million dollars and BAE Systems can then modify the aircraft to meet customers’ specific needs. Many of the in-service fleet have yet to reach half-life and a Life Extension Programme has also been developed by BAE Systems.
Given typical military utilisations, the aircraft can be expected to offer reliable service for many years. BAE Systems believes the Avro RJM offers cost-effective additional airlift capability for interim or long-term requirements and is available at a time when defence budgets increasingly are under strain.
Against all of the current turboprop new-build aircraft the Avro RJM offers a higher payload, faster, over greater ranges. Whilst it is not a full tactical airlifter in the sense that it does not have a rear-loading ramp, the cost-benefit equation between the price paid for that capability, compared to the number of times that the capability is used realistically, means that the Avro RJM can be considered as a very effective transport indeed to meet most requirements.
Taking the concept some stages further, BAE Systems has developed a number of modifications that are available to increase the utility of the Avro RJM. A Combi layout is now possible with seating for around 50 passengers at the front of the aircraft and with access to the forward exit doors as well as two underwing exits. This allows a 9G bulkhead to be fitted aft of the wing and with the overhead bins removed in this rear section regular sized freight containers can be loaded through the freight door.
Other available modifications include medevac options and parachutist deployment, plus additional fuel tanks, interior racks, workstations and test equipment solutions.
The conversion by BAE Systems Regional Aircraft of a BAe 146-300 to become the BAe 146 ARA (Atmospheric Research Aircraft) several years ago has resulted in that aircraft now being considered as one of the foremost airborne scientific platforms in the world. This extensive conversion means that BAE Systems has deep experience of engineering and integrating complex computer and scientific mission equipment into the aircraft.
By retaining a complete aircraft design and engineering capability, coupled with a premier supply chain offering an extensive in-service support experience, BAE Systems Regional Aircraft is well positioned to be an ideal partner for any other modification – no matter how small or large.
Concepts such as using the Avro RJM as a forward refueller, air-to-air refueller, for maritime surveillance, for medevac and expedited casevac are all perfectly possible and could be developed by BAE Systems in partnership with end users and other industry entities.
Enter the BAe 146/Avro RJ – Airtanker of choice
A new and innovative use for the BAe 146/Avro RJ is as an aerial firefighter or Airtanker. In North America, airtankers are well-established for wildfire suppression, but many aircraft used for these missions are of Korean War vintage, such as Neptunes or early turboprops like Lockheed Electras. Age is catching up with them.
The US Forest Service (USFS) was determined to introduce the ‘next-gen’ airtanker. ‘Next-gen’ airtankers had to be better than the previous early generation vintage aircraft. They had to fly faster, be turbine- or jet-powered, and as Type 1 airtankers, have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.
Several airtanker operators contacted BAE Systems Regional Aircraft to study the practicality of the BAe 146/Avro RJ as a waterbomber, and discussions were held with the USFS. The USFS was particularly encouraged that BAE Systems was prepared to stand behind its product and that operators could count on engineering and product support as they required.
Successful flight trials were held in America using a BAe 146-100 aircraft in September 2004 and were flown by the Chief Pilot of airtanker company Minden Air Corp. with a BAE Systems test pilot. The results exceeded their expectations and were better than experienced from flying the simulator.
Flying drop-type manoeuvres the aircraft had a better angle of attack than was anticipated and approach angles were better. The aircraft was responsive and easy to fly, low speed handling was good, and there were less structural loads than had been anticipated.
Conair RJ85 Airtanker showing the bulbous wrap around external tank
Minden Air became the first US operator to select the BAe146 for this new role and acquired two Series 200 aircraft for conversion. Two other operators followed. Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana is the biggest operator with seven Series 200s in operation after conversion by Tronos PLC’s engineering facility in Canada. Air Spray of Chico, California is converting three Series 200s, with first flight due in October, and has just acquired a further three aircraft.
All of these operators/converters have different internal tank and delivery systems designs and they are certificated under Supplemental Type Certificates (STC). Operators engage with BAE Systems in varying ways. For example, Air Spray utilises BAE Systems for loads, stress and fatigue analysis and damage tolerance for the aircraft.
The Avro RJ85 is also well suited to this demanding role and has been chosen by Conair of Abbotsford, Canada for its future large airtanker needs. Conair is the world’s largest airtanker operator and converter with a fleet of over 60 fixed wing aircraft of varying sizes.
They have converted five RJ85s and operate them in their own right or through their US subsidiary, Aero Flite. A further RJ85 is under conversion. They are looking to the long-term and have stated they expect the aircraft to remain in service for the next 20-25 years.
Conair RJ85 Airtanker dropping retardant
Their design features an external pannier tank wrapped around the fuselage underbelly. BAE Systems analysed the structure and aerodynamic shape of the tank and supplied a pilot to help them assess what turned out to be a remarkably benign aerodynamic effect on the aircraft.
All airtankers of whatever design have to get Interagency Airtanker Board approval to demonstrate the accuracy of their retardant delivery systems onto a narrow piece of land and with equal spread over a grid of thousands of cups which measures the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. Only with this approval can they be eligible for airtanker contracts.
Currently 16 out of 22 large airtankers in the USA that are earmarked for six-year ‘Call When Needed’ contracts by the USFS are BAe 146/Avro RJs. In addition, two Conair RJ85s and a Neptune BAe 146 are on Exclusive Use contracts with the USFS. So the aircraft has really made its mark.
In total over 20 BAe 146/Avro RJs are now operational or under conversion for this demanding firefighting role, making it the ‘next-gen’ airtanker of choice.
The’ second life’ for the BAe 146/Avro RJ is well underway.