The Merlin, known alternatively as the AW101 or EH101, is the result of a joint venture between the UK-based Westland and Italy’s Agusta.
The Merlin is a medium-lift transport and utility helicopter, but it is also an anti-submarine warfare craft. The Merlin is powered by three Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca RTM322 engines in about 80% of AW101 models and the General Electric CT7 for some Italian, Canadian and Japanese models.
The five-bladed main rotor is constructed of advanced materials, using carbon and glass with Nomex honeycomb and Rohacell foam in a sandwich. The rotors are edged with titanium and the overall shape is based on the British Experimental Rotor Programme (BER) design. This design reduces the acoustic signature of the blades and makes them more aerodynamically efficient. With BERP IV blades installed the maximum takeoff weight of the Merlin is actually improved. The AW101 has versatile fueling options. Each engine is individually fueled, but additional tanks can be added to extend the craft’s range. The AW101 can even be configured for aerial refueling.
In its role as a submarine hunter the AW101 comes with formidable weaponry. Hardpoints on the underside of the airframe can carry torpedoes or depth charges. Although not its explicit purpose, anti-ship missiles have been fitted to AW101s. The Royal Navy is considering changes that will let the AW101 Merlin fight over land. Anti-surface missiles and up to five general purpose machine gun mounts for some variants make this a plausible proposition. AgustaWestland is investigating other ground attack weapons as well as rocket pod integration.
Thanks to a long-standing partnership with IBM the avionics on the AW101 are impressive and significantly reduce load on the pilot and crew. Four-axis autopilot and automatic stabilization make the AW101 a reliable platform and allows the crew to focus on their mission. The sensor suite available to the Merlin is extensive. Notably it is equipped with the Blue Kestrel radar system, which literally gives the Merlin eyes in the back of its head with 360 degree scanning. A system that can detect small objects at 25 nautical miles.
An AW101 will cost a prospective buyer $21 million, which is not insignificant. Nonetheless, the Merlin has done well in terms of demand. Notable orders include 15 units for the Canadian government as search and rescue craft. The so-called “Cormorant” variant employed in Canada bears a striking yellow and red paint scheme. Fourteen units have gone to Japan. Norway, Denmark, Algeria and the UK itself can be counted amongst the customer base for the AW101.