PZL-Swidnik (now part of Italy's Leonardo-Finmeccanica by way of AgustaWestland) - established in 1951 - is the largest helicopter-maker in the nation of Poland. One of its most successful commercial products is the medium-lift PZL W-3 "Sokol" ("Falcon"), a multi-role-minded rotary-wing platform which continues to serve many global operators ranging from Algeria and Chile to Spain and Uganda. The product is something of a national success story for Poland as it became the first completely indigenous helicopter (designed and developed in-house) to emerge from the former Soviet-aligned country. However, production totals have been rather modest when compared to other more high-profile helicopters of same role, reaching only some 150 units to date (2018) with manufacture spanning from 1986 to the present.
W-3 Sokol Development
Design work began in 1973 as a local initiative to satisfy both military and civilian markets, primarily those in the Soviet sphere of influence. For the rigors of both industries, a twin-engine design was selected which aided reliability and survivability as well as met the medium-lift requirement. The overall configuration of the helicopter was largely conventional with the engines installed over the passenger cabin roof. A four-bladed main rotor was used for lift and this coupled with a three-bladed tail rotor (facing starboard) for stability. The undercarriage was wheeled for ground-running but fixed in place during flight. The pilots took up positions overlooking the short nose section in the usual way with the cockpit offering commanding views of the action around the helicopter's frontal section.
A first-flight was recorded on November 16th, 1979, delayed by a very long development phase which presented its set of challenges, launching what would become a storied service career. This then spurred low-rate production beginning in 1985 (while there still was a Soviet Union).
Sokol Civilian Marks
The W-3 Sokol fed the civilian market through several designs: W-3 was used to mark the base multi-purpose, utility-minded platforms of which thirty units followed to the standard. W-3A were FAR-29 certified and the E-3AS were W-3 airframes converted to the newer W-3A standard, twenty-two emerging from production. The W-3A2 was given a twin-axis Smith SN350 series autopilot system though only a single example was built. The W-3AM was completed with floats for on-water landings and thirteen were delivered to the standard. The W-3 "Erka" was proposed for the air-ambulance role but only a single example was realized.
Sokol Military Marks
The Sokol went on to shine for the military market: Initial, unarmed marks became the W-3, W-3T and W-3P. The W-3P became a VIP passenger transport and the W-3W/W-3WA were armed versions fitting 2 x 23mm GSz-23L series autocannons as well as four weapons hardpoints; thirty-four were built to the standard. The W-3AE was taken on by the Polish Army as a MEDEVAC platform and three were converted from the armed W-3WA mark. Another MEDEVAC form emerged through two examples as the W-3R, these used by the Polish Air Force. The service also had six W-3RL models for the Search and Rescue (SAR) role.
The W-3RM and W-3WARM "Anakonda" were navalized W-3 helicopters delivered to the Polish Navy for SAR operations at sea. Eight were procured. The W-3PSOT and W-3PPD "Gipsowka" were used as flying command centers for the Polish Army. Three examples of the W-3RR "Procjon" were built as radio-electronic reconnaissance platforms.
The W-3PL "Gluszec" is the current militarized Sokol helicopter standard. Based in the W-3WA model, it is fully-modernized for the battlefield requirements of the new millennium and features digital avionics, HOCAS ("Hands-On-Collective-And-Stick"), FLIR and Night-Vision (NV) support. Two large-area color Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) dominate the instrument panel ahead of each pilot position and each pilot is afforded HUD (Head-Up Display) showcasing pertinent mission and performance information. A Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) is standard as is IFF. The twin 23mm cannon fitting has been simplified to become a single 12.7mm heavy machine gun weapon operated by the pilot. The design appeared in testing in 1999 and has been taken into service by Polish Land Forces since (through an upgrade program of existing W-3WA production models).
The Sokol series was also proposed in a handful of other over-battlefield forms including anti-ship/anti-submarine (W-3U-1 "Alligator"), gunship and 14-passenger transport (W-3 "Sokol-Long") models but none came to fruition.
The W-3WB "Huzar" was a proposed armed variant of note and based in the W-3W model series. Denel of South Africa supplied the avionics and weapons fit from the Rooivalk attack helicopter. This product failed to materialize beyond a demonstrator form and instead shifted to Israeli IAI avionic and weapon suites, becoming the W-3H. The Polish Air Force was interested in procuring about 100 of these models but the deal was cancelled in 1998.
W-3A Performance and Walk-Around
The W-3A production model carries 2 x Rzeszow PZL-10B turboshaft engines rated at 900 horsepower each. It sports a maximum speed of 162mph and typically cruises near 150mph. Range is out to 465 miles (775 miles ferry) and its service ceiling is 16,100 feet. Rate-of-climb is 1,830 feet-per-minute.
Internally there is a crew of two seated side-by-side. Depending on seating configuration, as many as twelve passengers can be ferried to-and-fro. For the MEDEVAC role, up to four medical litters can be installed and there remains space for accompanying medical staff. Dimensions of the aircraft include an overall length of 46.7 feet, a width (including rotor diameter) of 51.5 feet and a height of 16.9 feet. Empty weight is 8,500lb against an MTOW of 14,110lb.
September 2019 - Leonardo of Italy has unveiled a proposed plan to upgrade existing W-3 helicopters (Leonardo owns PZL-Swidnik of Poland under its Leonardo-Finmeccanica Helicopter Division parent label). Upgrades include an all-new avionics/communications suite with autopilot, new flight management system, and new main rotor blades.
Algeria; Chile; Germany; Indonesia; Italy; Nigeria; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Russia; South Africa; South Korea; Soviet Union; Spain; United Arab Emirates
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Ground Attack (Bombing, Strafing)
Ability to conduct aerial bombing of ground targets by way of (but not limited to) guns, bombs, missiles, rockets, and the like.
✓Close-Air Support (CAS)
Developed to operate in close proximity to active ground elements by way of a broad array of air-to-ground ordnance and munitions options.
✓Special-Mission: Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
Equipped to search, track, and engage enemy underwater elements by way of specialized onboard equipment and weapons.
✓Special-Mission: MEDical EVACuation (MEDEVAC)
Extraction of wounded combat or civilian elements by way of specialized onboard equipment and available internal volume or external carrying capability.
✓Special-Mission: Search & Rescue (SAR)
Ability to locate and extract personnel from areas of potential harm or peril (i.e. downed airmen in the sea).
✓Maritime / Navy
Land-based or shipborne capability for operating over-water in various maritime-related roles while supported by allied naval surface elements.
General transport functionality to move supplies/cargo or personnel (including wounded and VIP) over range.
Used in the Very-Important-Person (VIP) passenger transport role, typically with above-average amenities and luxuries as standard.
Serving Special Forces / Special Operations elements and missions.
46.6 ft (14.21 m)
51.5 ft (15.70 m)
16.9 ft (5.14 m)
8,488 lb (3,850 kg)
14,110 lb (6,400 kg)
+5,622 lb (+2,550 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the PZL W-3A Sokol production variant)
2 x WSKPZL Rzeszow PZL-10B turboshaft engines developing 900 shaft horsepower each and driving a four-bladed main rotor and three-bladed tail rotor.
Military models can feature 2 x 23mm autocannon pack as well as four external hardpoints for rocket pods and missiles. 23mm cannons substituted for 1 x 12.7mm heavy machine gun in some models.
(Not all ordnance types may be represented in the showcase above)
Hardpoint Mountings: 4
W-3 - Base Series Designation; early production forms.
W-3A - Base transport model
W-3AS - W-3 airframes modified to W-3A standard
W-3A2 - Two-axis Smith SN350 series autopilot; 22 models converted to standard.
W-3AM - Float-equipped variant for on-water landings.
W-3T - Basic unarmed military model
W-3P - Military VIP transport model
W-3S - Military VIP transport model
W-3W - Armed variant sporting 2 x 23mm cannon pack and four hardpoints for rockets and missiles.
W-3WA - Armed variant with FAR-29 certification.
W-3R - MEDEVAC platform
W-3RL - Over-land Search and Rescue (SAR) model.
W-3RM "Anakonda" - Over-water SAR model
W-3WARM - W-3RM with FAR-29 certification
W-3PSOT "Anakonda" - Flying Command Center platform.
W-3PPD "Gipsowka" - Flying Command Center platform.
W-3RR "Procjon" - Radio-Electronic Reconnaissance variant.
W-3PL "Gluszec" - Major modernization effort for existing stock; digital cockpit, new engines, enhanced capabilities.
W-3B "Jastrzab" - Proposed attack helicopter variant with tandem seating.
W-3K / W-3WB "Huzar"- Proposed gunship mark initially featuring Denel Rooivalk avionics and weapons support then, later, Israeli IAI avionics and weapons support.
W-3L "Sokol Long" - Proposed lengthened transport model with seating for fourteen passengers.
W-3MS / W-3WS - Proposed gunship models.
W-3U "Salamandra" - Proposed armed variant with avionics and armament fit from the Mil Mi-24W gunship helicopter series.
W-3U-1 "Aligator" - Proposed Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) variant.
W-3PL/N - Proposed navalized W-3PL with inherent anti-ship/anti-submarine support; folding main rotor; radar-equipped and dipping sonar system as standard.
Ribbon graphics not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective aerial campaigns / operations / aviation periods.
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Image from the United States Department of Defense DVIDS imagery database.
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Image from the United States Department of Defense DVIDS imagery database.
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