Plucking injured troops off the battlefields of Afghanistan has earned the U.K.'s Boeing CH-47 Chinook force huge admiration and generated intense interest.

Behind the scenes, however, British operations of the Chinook have not always been that straightforward. The U.K. was a relatively late adopter of the tandem-rotor heavy-lift helicopter—the first ones arrived in the early 1980s. The type was bought in batches—currently another 14 are on order, and these will ultimately take the fleet to 60 aircraft. As a result, several versions exist with varying equipment fits and cockpit arrangements.

But now a program to convert the fleet to a single standard is making significant progress; the first standardized aircraft became operational in Afghanistan at the beginning of the year. The £290 million ($451 million) Project Julius program is geared to modernize and, more crucially, standardize the RAF's current fleet of 46 Chinooks. Boeing is prime contractor with Thales providing the avionics, while Vector Aerospace has been carrying out the engineering. In a separate contract, worth £128 million, Honeywell has supplied new, more powerful T55-714 engines designed to cope with hot-and-high conditions.

The flight deck has been fitted with four 6 X 8-in. flight displays, while tablet computers provide mission-management data not only to the pilots but also to the rear crew, who will take on a greater role during high-intensity missions.

Group Capt. Dominic Toriati, the RAF's Chinook force commander, says: “Crew cooperation in the Chinook force has always been very good, but the displays and the tablet improve situational awareness for everyone. There is less need for the pilots to paint a picture of the situation.”

Regular updates to the avionics software add new enhancements and capabilities to the fleet, and are also added to the simulator, which keeps synthetic training on pace with cockpit improvements. The Thales-developed ground mission support system allows crews to plan and brief the missions on the ground and then upload the data to the aircraft. Once in the air, the tablets can allow and expedite changes to the mission plan if required.

Until the first upgraded aircraft arrived, the Chinook force was operating three basic versions of the CH-47 (Mk2s and MK2As are simply British designations for the CH-47D model). The eight Mk3s had been due to enter service in 1998, but contractual issues regarding cockpit avionics source code meant that the aircraft had to have the avionics reverted to an earlier standard to make them airworthy and usable for training. Once upgraded through Julius, the Mk2/2A aircraft become Mk4s and the Mk3s become Mk5s.

The Mk5s have the potential to bring a significant capability to the Chinook force. Since they were returned to operational service the Mk3s have been mainly used for training, but with the upgrade and the variant's enlarged fuel sponsons, the aircraft could deliver useful range and payload improvements for ferrying or long-endurance capability.

The 14 new aircraft ordered in August 2011 are being built in Philadelphia by Boeing and will be designated Mk6s. These are essentially CH-47Fs but will feature the same Thales cockpit as the rest of the fleet, as well as a Digital Automatic Flight Control System that allows features such as auto-hover to be enabled. The first of the Mk6s is due to arrive in the U.K. in 2014.

The first Mk4s became operational in summer 2012 and supported the Olympic security operation. As part of the preparation for Afghanistan, several aircraft were sent to El Centro, Calif., where crews were able to practice brown-out landings. On Dec. 12, Mk4s were transported to Afghanistan, where they are now operational. As more upgraded aircraft arrive, crews and instructors are being schooled in their use. Training frontline crews takes around two months, with ground school and then hands-on practical experience split 50/50 between the simulator and the aircraft.

“The aircraft handles in exactly the same way as the basic Chinook, so the key thing is getting the crews into using the avionic systems,” says Toriati. “They recognize that the Mk4 is a step forward and [people who] have converted have adapted very well.”

Chinooks are deployed as part of the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) supporting coalition troops in Helmand Province, and the mission there has dominated Chinook force life for the past decade. But now commanders are looking at how to rebuild the Chinook's contingency role when the Afghanistan mission ceases at the end of 2014. Toriati is considering restoring cold weather training in Norway and the option of being able to operate from ships. Chinooks are already supporting Joint Warrior exercises in the North Sea and took part in an Anglo-French amphibious training exercise—Corsican Lion—during 2012.