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Pakistan Army Aviation’s High-Altitude Capabilities


On 25 January 2018, two European climbers – Elisabeth Revol of France and Tomasz Mackiewicz of Poland – were trapped on Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest peak in the world, following an attempt to climb the summit ‘alpine style’ (i.e. with bare/minimal equipment – including supplementary oxygen – and support). The following day, a Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) unit equipped with two Airbus Helicopters H125M (previously known as the AS550 C3e Fennec) was deployed by Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) to support rescue operations.[1] Ultimately, the rescue team (spearheaded by four Polish rescuers) could only retrieve Revol, failing to recover Mackiewicz due to deteriorating weather conditions.

For the PAA, the rescue operation required the H125Ms to operate at altitudes of 4,000 m to 5,560 m (i.e. 13,000+ ft to 18,000+ ft). Specific tasks included landing and taking-off from the base camp of K2’s peak, which was at 18,000 ft above sea level. During the rescue effort for Revol, a PAA H125M was required to land at a camp on Nanga Parbat at 13,000 ft to drop-off the rescuers. During the retrieval of the rescuers, not only did the H125M unit land at 14,107 ft, but they had opted to stay at the site, but they had turned-off their engines to conserve fuel – this is not typically done in high-altitude rescue operations.[2]

This search-and-rescue (SAR) role is simply one among many for the PAA, even with the comparatively newer H125M (which has the capability to fly as high as 23,000 ft or 7,000 m).[3] However, the question of whether a prospective or existing aviation asset can effectively function in hot-and-high conditions, such as that of the Himalayas, weighs heavily on the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The ability to reach areas-of-interest, conduct logistical tasks, lift troops and execute combat operations in Pakistan’s hot-and-high environments are key to the country’s security interests.

Pakistan’s High-Altitude Operational Environments

The terrain and environmental realities of Pakistan’s northern regions, namely Gilgit-Baltistan, Kashmir, Siachen and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), necessitate aircraft with effective hot-and-high flight capabilities. First, these operating environments constitute key regions in terms of Pakistan’s national security interests: FATA is directly tied to a longstanding counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign and, potentially, interest in interdicting activity from Afghanistan; the Northern Areas are tied to border control with China (i.e. the Karakoram Range); and Kashmir is tied to conventional security interests vis-à-vis India.

Thus, these regions cannot be ignored, but the realities of the terrain, such as the lack of accessibility due to limited logistics infrastructure (by land) necessitate aircraft tailored to take-off from unprepared and semi-prepared runways and/or purely remote surfaces (e.g. mountain peaks). Regarding fixed-wing aircraft, the PAF and PAA leverage the low-speed handling and efficiency of turboprop planes, such as the Harbin Y-12, Textron Cessna Grand Caravan EX and Airbus CN235, in hot-and-high conditions. Besides being optimized for short-take-off-and-landing (STOL), turboprop aircraft are also more resistant to damage from debris, a key risk when operating from unprepared or semi-prepared runways.

Besides serving essential logistics functions (e.g. transporting troops and supplies), the PAF is also able to deploy marquee intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities from within hot-and-high environments. These ISR assets include the Saab 2000/Erieye airborne early warning and control aircraft, a critical piece to the PAF’s high-level air defence coverage net and situational awareness for its fighters.

The ‘Hot-and-High’ Helicopter Fleet

The PAA and the PAF have made effective hot-and-high operations a design requisite for their respective helicopter procurement efforts, especially in recent years. It is not clear how many H125Ms the PAA has in service, but the H125 had replaced the PAA’s venerable SA315 Lama helicopters for high-altitude flight operations by 2013.[4] In fact, the Lama still holds the absolute record for high-altitude flight, registering a ceiling of 40,820 ft in 1972.[5] However, the scarcity of spare parts and dwindling after-sale support by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) – i.e. today, Airbus Helicopters – had made the Lama increasingly costly to operate. Airbus has positioned the H125M as the Lama’s successor for high-altitude operations.[6]

Pakistan currently has nine additional H125Ms on order (for $37.63 million U.S.) from 2015-2016.[7] Prior, media reports had pegged Pakistan ordering an initial batch of 20 H125M with an additional aircraft in 2009 – i.e. a total of 21. Based on these figures, Pakistan would have a total fleet of 30 H125Ms. However, the PAA has also begun complementing the H125M with the Leonardo AW139 and – if the order is signed – the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) T129 in the utility and attack roles, respectively. In their respective trials, both helicopters were examined – and lauded for – hot-and-high performance capability.

The AW139 is a six-to-seven-ton utility helicopter powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67C turboshaft engines. It has a passenger capacity of 15 (plus two flight-crew), endurance of five hours, ferry range of 1,061 km and service ceiling of 20,000 ft.[8] As per the Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP)’s report for 2015-2016, four AW139s were ordered for $78.94 m (split between the PAA and PAF).[9] As per Leonardo, Pakistan made two additional batch orders in February and March 2017 for the AW139.[10][11] The AW139 was flown to Pakistan for trials in 2016, in which its hot-and-high performance was tested through flights over the Karakoram Range. Leonardo states that the AW139 flew at 20,000 ft (above sea-level) and conducted take-off and landings on unprepared surfaces at 16,300 ft.[12]

TAI sent a T129 to Pakistan for trials in May 2016. According to TAI, the T129 had the distinction of being the first attack helicopter to succeed in flights in the Himalayas.[13] TAI flew the T129 at an altitude of 14,000 ft.[14] While the T129’s flight ceiling would add to the PAA’s combat capability, it should be noted that high-altitude attack helicopter flights are already a factor through Pakistan’s longstanding COIN operations in FATA. In the Army’s COIN operations of the late 2000s and early 2010s, the PAA’s AH-1F/S Cobra attack helicopters were loitering over peaks at 8,000 ft and, less commonly, even reaching 14,000 ft.[15] In these conditions, PAA pilots have to wear oxygen masks while also keeping abreast of the AH-1F/S’ ‘creaks and shakes’.[16] TAI confirmed that Pakistan is negotiating for 30 T129s from TAI.[17]

If the T129 deal comes to fruition, it would result in the PAA building a hot-and-high-optimized helicopter fleet covering spectrum with lightweight (i.e. the two-ton H125M), light-medium utility (i.e. AW139) and dedicated attack (i.e. T129) platforms. In effect, it would be a complete – though imperfect – package that Pakistan can leverage for continued COIN operations and, if the requisite numbers are met, conventional operations vis-à-vis India. However, the ‘imperfect’ nature of this fleet may dampen this potential in terms of higher procurement and/or operational costs. In terms of the latter, the AW139 and T129 do not have engine commonality, thus requiring parallel field and depot maintenance facilities.

This is contrast to the Indian Army (IA) and Indian Air Force’s (IAF) aviation strategy (which aims to provide robust high-altitude utility and attack coverage) through the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Dhruv and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). The LCH is derived from the Dhruv, with both platforms using the Safran-HAL Shakti turboshaft engine. For India, the Dhruv and LCH achieve the same functional goals as the AW139 and T129 would for Pakistan. Furthermore, the Dhruv and LCH draw upon India’s indigenous defence industry, thus enabling New Delhi to channel a sizable portion of its procurement as an economic stimulus. For Pakistan, a pursuit for numbers will be less kind to its foreign-currency reserves.

On the other hand, the selection of the H125M and AW139 do leverage ubiquitous solutions, i.e. both of these helicopter platforms benefit from scale, while also being tested designs. In this sense, Pakistan can benefit from low lifecycle costs (e.g. abundance of spare parts and after-sale support for the aircraft on the market). In terms of the AW139, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) was completing a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine platform.[18] TAI claimed that the T129’s “life-cycle costs are very competitive and almost certainly unbeatable in its class.”[19] However, the T129’s LHTEC (Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company) CTS800-4A turboshaft is a new design, thus lacking the scale of the PT6 (and General Electric T700-based engines powering the AH-1Z Viper). LHTEC seems to emphasize the CTS-800’s fuel-efficiency as the key to its cost-effectiveness. Moreover, through the AW159 and Turkish T-625, the CTS-800 is steadily growing in worldwide adoption.

Overall, the PAA’s high-altitude operations fleet is modernizing: the H125M has supplanted the Lama, while the AW139 provides a heavier lift option. The quantitative growth of this fleet and whether it will be augmented by a modern attack element through the T129 is an open question. Currently, TAI appears to be confident of securing a sale, stating that negotiations with Pakistan are ongoing. However, should it come to fruition, the IA and IAF will maintain a quantitative edge (but there will be technological parity). That said, the PAA (and potentially the PAF) can continue with incremental/small-batch purchases through cash over the long-term, as it is with the H125M. In turn, the PAA could steadily scale the logistics and maintenance infrastructure overhead of the H125M, AW139 and, potentially, T129 by building large fleets through regular small-batch purchases over a 10-15-year period.

[1] Press Release. “Two H125s help rescue climber in Pakistan.” Airbus Helicopters. 07 February 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Army Aviation: Special Report 2013”. Tangent Link. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[4] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Army Aviation: Special Report 2013”. Tangent Link. 2013

[5] Skip Robinson. “The Mountain King”. Vertical Mag. 17 November 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[6] Press Release. “High-altitude flying: New Zealand pilot recounts experience on Mount Everest in an H125”. Airbus Helicopters. 14 December 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[7] Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) Yearbook 2015-2016. Government of Pakistan. p.16

[8] Promotional Material. AW139. Leonardo. URL:

[9] Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) Yearbook 2015-2016. Government of Pakistan. p.15

[10] Press Release. “Leonardo: Pakistan expands its AW139 fleet with new orders.” Leonardo. 20 February 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[11] Press Release. “Pakistan strengthens helicopter fleet renewal with additional AW139s order.” Leonardo. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[12] “The AW139 completed the hot & high tests in Pakistan.” Leonardo (via HeliPress). 26 July 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[13] “T129 ATAK at the Himalayas”. Turkish Aerospace Industries (via MSI Turkish Defence Review). November 2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Army Aviation: Special Report 2013”. Tangent Link. 2013

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wendell Minnick. “Singapore Airshow: Turkey closes in on T129 sale.” 08 February 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[18] Official Tender: “Pre-Qualification of Firms for Establishment of MRO Facilities for PT6 Engines.” Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (via History of PIA). 28 October 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[19] Helen Haxell. “MSPO 2017: The Kruk of the matter.” Shephard Media. 29 August 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

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