Hip replacement?

The search for an aircraft to replace the ubiquitous Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota has become something of a quest. The Dakota’s mix of rugged simplicity, ability to operate from short, primitive, grass or dirt airstrips, 1,200nm range, 21-32 seat capacity, and close to six-tonne payload, made it the aircraft of choice in the developing world. However, as Jon Lake reports, a rival is rapidly building its reputation.

See the difference: VIP variants of the Mi-17 (and some ex-Aeroflot aircraft) have distinctive rectangular cabin windows, like this Egyptian aircraft. Picture: US DoD Sergeant Jose M. Hernandez.

Russia’s Mil Mi-17 helicopter, known to NATO as the ‘Hip-H’, carries 24 troops or a four-tonne payload, and is winning a formidable reputation for rugged dependability.

As a result, it is rapidly becoming Africa’s most widely used utility workhorse – operating with at least 28 of the continent’s air forces, and with numbers in service increasing steadily.

A clear indication of its superiority came in a 2018, when a report from the lead inspector general to the US Congress on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel – the US Government’s official name for the continuation of the global war on terrorism – outlined concerns with the ongoing replacement of the Afghan Air Force’s Mi-17s with Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks.

The US aircraft were acknowledged to be less capable and harder to maintain than the Russian-made helicopters – unable to operate at the same high elevations, and often requiring two Black Hawks to carry the load of a single Mi-17.

Current African military operators of the Mi-17 include the air forces of Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Libya, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The type is also used by parapublic, law enforcement and other government operators in Angola (Ministerio de Administracion Territorial), Burkina Faso (government flight), Equatorial Guinea, Kenya (Kenya Police) Libya (Air Ambulance Service), and Sudan (Police Air Wing).

Former operators include Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Somalia.

The type has been used in action during the Sierra Leone Civil War, ferrying ammunition and other supplies to government troops, and also in the Angolan Civil War and the more recent Libyan Civil War.

The Mi-17 is a derivative of the Mi-8 – its original Soviet armed forces designation was Mi-8MT, with the Mi-17 designation initially reserved for civil and export sub variants.

The basic TV2-powered Mi-8 first flew in 1961, and entered service in 1967, and the up-engine Mi-17 followed some years later, flying in 1975 and entering service in 1977.

Compared to the basic Mi-8, the Mi-17 was fitted with more powerful Klimov TV3-117MT engines originally developed for the navalised Mi-14, with uprated rotors and transmission, and a strengthened fuselage to allow the carriage of heavier loads.

The new powerplant and dynamics system resulted in the tail rotor being repositioned from the starboard side of the tail boom to the port – the main recognition feature for the new variant. Dust filters were also fitted in front of the engine intakes.

The helicopter was designed by Mikhail Mil, the head of the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant.

Since Mil merged with Kamov and Rostvertol to form Russian Helicopters in 2006, the type has been built by two factories – the Kazan Helicopter Plant in the Republic of Tatarstan, and the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant in the Republic of Buryatia.

Kazan initially concentrated on the production of military versions of the Mi-17, but both factories have now produced variants for military customers, while other factories and plants have reworked former Soviet and Russian military variants for new customers, sometimes using former specialised electronic warfare and command post variants (and even ex-Aeroflot aircraft) as the basis of military transport or medevac helicopters.

A bewildering array of sub-variants of the Mi-17 have been produced, with different engines, avionics, nose radar sets, and door configurations, and different engine air intake filters. Some aircraft have a new, lower drag nose shape, while others are still being delivered with the blunter, more heavily glazed original Mi-8 nose shape. Some aircraft retain the bulged rear clamshell doors of the Mi-8, while others have a drop-down rear loading ramp, allowing them to load a small sport utility-type vehicle (SUV).

The Mi-17 can carry a range of armament on optional outrigger-type pylons, including bombs, gun and rocket pods, and missiles, while trainable machine guns can be mounted in doors and windows.

For improved hot-and-high performance, Mi-17 variants have been offered with 2,070shp Isotov TV3-117VM engines or full authority digital engine control (FADEC)-equipped Klimov VK-2500 powerplants.

Identical configurations produced by the two factories have sometimes used different designations, while different versions have sometimes shared the same designation, making the classification and identification of different Mi-17 sub-types extremely problematic.

The Kazan-built Mi-17V-5 has been delivered to Ghana and Uganda with the newer, pointed nose and a full-width cargo ramp, while Senegal’s Mi-17V-5s have the older, glazed and rounded nose and a cargo ramp.

Similarly, the Mi-171Sh is an export version of the Ulan-Ude’s Mi-8AMTSh. But, while Algeria’s aircraft have a rounded nose, and clamshell doors, Chad’s have the pointed nose and a full-width cargo ramp.

Algeria has taken delivery of a variety of Mi-17 sub-variants, some of which have been further upgraded in country to include a South African Denel Argus opto-electronic targeting system and Kentron ZT35 tube-launched anti-tank guided missiles.

Algeria also operates some examples of the Mi-171Sh2, an upgraded version of Mi-171Sh with new avionics, and engines, an under-nose optronic ball turret, the ‘President-S’ active and passive protection system, B8W20A rocket pods, and up to eight 9M120 ‘Ataka’ missiles. This all turns the Mi-17 into a heavily armed and sophisticated gunship.

The Mi-172 is one of the latest variants of the Mi-17, and is a civilian passenger version manufactured at the Kazan plant, based on the Mi-8MTV-3. Those delivered to the Kenya Police feature the round nose and clamshell doors, while those for Equatorial Guinea have the newer pointed nose.

The Mi-171A2 is now being marketed to a number of potential African customers. The new variant features an integrated avionics suite developed by Ulyanovsk Flight Instrument Design Bureau, allowing a two-man flight deck with no flight engineer.

The aircraft has composite blades on the main rotor and the X-shaped tail rotor, with an upgraded swashplate and a new main rotor hub. It is powered by 2,400hp Klimov VK-2500PS-03 turboshaft engines.