It is not just in the commercial sector that ground support equipment is in constant use; military forces rely on it too
It is not just the commercial aviation world that requires all manner of ground support equipment in order to function effectively. So too does military aviation and the UK’s Royal Air Force and its other armed forces are no exception to that.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) manages airfield support, including airfield specialist vehicles and ground support equipment as a single capability across its four font-line commands – navy, land forces, air and joint forces.
As the majority user, Air Command acts as the lead on capability management in this area, and has funding responsibility. Its representative chairs an Airfield Support Board that includes other representatives of the various commands that use ground support equipment (GSE) and the supplying Defence Equipment & Support Project Teams. Together, they agree what they regard as “a prioritised, affordable and deliverable programme of acquisition projects”, an MoD spokesperson explains.
These projects vary enormously in size, with the biggest worth more than £50 million (US$81 million) over the life of the equipment. The tendering process is, the spokesperson stressed, “run in accordance with European Union and UK government procurement regulations”.
In terms of complexity, smaller projects of airfield support acquisition may be completed in just six months, but larger requirements can take as long as 18 months or two years from initial concept work, through completion to first deliveries, the MoD asserts – although some might disagree, arguing the timeframe can in actual fact be much longer.
The whole process can be speeded if there exists what is known as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). However, these are usually issued in support of a change in numbers required or the use of an aircraft type, and so tend to be met by procuring additional equipment selected in an earlier competition, rather than the MoD coming to the market seeking an entirely new capability.
Over the years, the MoD has purchased its GSE from most of the industry leaders but recent, major projects have been delivered by such enterprises as Terberg DTS, EINSA, Sun, Test Fuchs, Schmidt, Vestergaard, Fluid Transfer and AMSS – either as the equipment manufacturer or as the lead provider of a through-life support arrangement.
The first of these, Terberg DTS (UK), has supplied a variety of airside support equipment to the MoD in the recent past, including two types of Schopf tractor that are principally used for aircraft towing and airside buses that are currently in use at one of the RAF’s main UK bases. Terberg both supplied the vehicles and is contracted to provide longer term maintenance and spares support over the operational life of the equipment.
The company has also supplied the UK MoD with various aircraft de-icing vehicles, other airport buses and a small crane for maintenance work, again also being contracted for both vehicle supply and for through-life support. The various types of equipment have been used by the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) at different locations around the world.
According to Alisdair Couper, managing director of Terberg DTS (UK): “It is our policy to partner with the best manufacturers in every market sector in which we compete. In terms of the equipment supplied to the MoD, we believe that the products we supply are market leaders from world-class manufacturers, which ensures that they have good reliability built in as standard, as well as proven performance in military applications over a long time period.”
The majority of the equipment that Terberg supplies to the UK MoD is very much commercial of-the-shelf (COTS) in nature, he says, that requires only very minor modification for military applications.
As for how the tender and procurement process works from his point of view, Couper observes: “Terberg closely monitors the defence procurement contract opportunities that are published, but the MoD tendering process is daunting.
“We select tenders where we can provide not just the equipment but also a long-term service and support solution. We were recently very successful in the tender for the supply of a quantity of mini spider cranes, where the operational requirement was almost immediate.
“However, in general, it depends on the equipment that is included in the tender and the timescales provided by the Ministry of Defence for actual operational duty that determines how complex the tender really is,” Couper adds.
But of course, in addition to the biggest players such as Terberg, there are hundreds of other companies that provide the equipment and/or support that are too numerous to list. Just one of those is the Uxbridge, UK-based Hale Hamilton. Hale Hamilton is best known for its valves, which are sold to the private sector as well as to armed forces – but it is various military agencies and primarily the UK armed forces that are its best customers.
About 70 percent of its business is for the military, most of it valves with naval applications, confirms defence sales director Bill Dormer. Another important part – about 5 percent – of its business is military aviation-related, and its work with the MoD in securing the distribution of its nitrogen and oxygen portable charging units (PCUs) is illustrative of the important role that even the –comparatively-speaking – smaller GSE suppliers make to the RAF’s capability.
Having already acquired numerous Hale Hamilton PCUs on behalf of the RAF for many years previously, in the mid-2000s the MoD’s Air Support Integrated Project Team (IPT) – now based at Abbey Wood – issued a tender for the latest in PCU technology.
A total of 18 companies originally applied and these were whittled down in successive phases of the selection process. Indeed, that whole process took roughly three years, Dormer informs, before Hale Hamilton’s lightweight and portable PCU’s were chosen.
As a result, it supplied approximately 1,000 nitrogen-based PCUs and 140 oxygen-based PCUs that quickly entered RAF service. Both types are carried in suitcase-size containers – ideal for easy transport, even within aircraft that are themselves deploying to forward bases – and can even be wheeled for even easier use on the apron.
They are used for slightly different, but numerous all the same, applications –nitrogen is typically used to fill aircraft tyres, to charge suspension struts, in hydraulic accumulators, in aircraft escape slides, door seals and in various other aircraft hydraulic components, while oxygen is employed as part of the aircrew’s breathing systems.
These charging units are now operated in the field in locations including Afghanistan, Dormer confirms, as well as with various other military forces including those of Australia, India and Singapore.
As part of the ongoing MoD deal, Hale Hamilton has continued to provide further PCUs and maintained an RAF support contract. It has also continued to sell a comprehensive range of valves designed for military applications to the MoD, while these military sales have run alongside various commercial programmes. Its nitrogen PCU is available to commercial carriers as Nitrogen 2 Go (N2GO) and the company sold 15 PCUs to the UAE flag-carrier Etihad just the other day, Dormer points out.
Collaboration with other companies has also allowed Hale Hamilton to broaden the value of its offering. It is currently working with Newbow Aerospace, the latter’s wheeled bottle trolley-cart using a Hale Hamilton nitrogen gas box for example.
This particular product is offered to both the commercial and military aviation sectors and, according to Newbow Aerospace’s sales director, Marc Green, with Newbow’s cart and Hale Hamilton’s valve technology within the control cabinet area, aircraft engineers can easily transport gas cylinders to waiting aircraft.
Officially launched as recently as July last year, 30 units have so far been sold to numerous customers, these clients benefiting from a number of unique selling points to the product including, Green explains, Hale Hamilton self-venting regulators (competitor products use conventional regulators requiring a separate vent valve, he highlights).
While the collaboration with Hale Hamilton is a welcome aspect of Newbow’s business, it also offers much else to military customers beyond its co-operation with Hale Hamilton. It has, for instance, supplied more than 2,000 aircraft tyre pressure check gauges into the UK military. Other gauges have been sold to the German Air Force, the US Air Force, and other defence suppliers such as BAE Systems and EADS.
As to the UK MoD’s tendering system, Green considers: “The process is very mixed. Sometimes the MoD will approach us direct for a quotation and then place an order with us direct.
“Other times they will use a third-party procurement company to place a quote and order with us. It is not unusual for us to receive tenders from three or four procurement companies sourcing the same part,” he said.