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Sea Kings spend fortnight training with Brittany peers
20 January 2017

Two Sea Kings from Culdrose are crossing the Channel for a fortnight’s training with French naval jets to pave the way for operations by HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Aircrews will hone their fighter control skills – guiding jets on to targets, exactly as their successors will do in Merlins aboard the new carrier.

Two Swiss F/A18 Hornets are lined up on the taxiway at Landivisiau while the two baggers of 849 NAS and a French Hawkeye are parked on the standings during the first Skinners Gold Exercise in 2013. Pictures: Marine Nationale

TWO Sea Kings today hop across the Channel to train with French fighters and learn skills vital for strike operations from Britain’s new aircraft carriers.

The helicopters from 849 Naval Air Squadron will join Rafale interceptors in the skies of Brittany and the Western Approaches to guide them on to ‘targets’ – exactly as their successor Crownest Merlins and F-35B Lightning IIs will do from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea Kings – the very last variant of the venerable helicopter still in service – are spending a fortnight at Landivisau air base near Brest for Exercise Skinners Gold (named after the Cornish tipple not the golden grass).

It’s the second time the baggers – so called for the distinctive black sack which contains the helicopter’s hi-tech radar – have been invited to train with the Charles de Gaulle’s fourth-generation fighters.

Four years ago, the emphasis was on preparing the French flagship’s air group for an impending deployment.

This time around, the emphasis is on developing the fighter control skills of the crews from the Culdrose-based squadron. 

As well as providing early warning of incoming enemy aircraft – or missiles – the observers operating the radar consoles in the back of the Sea Kings can also direct friendly jets to intercept those threats, a skill which has faded with the demise of the Harrier carriers and the helicopters spending extended periods over Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As well as preparing the squadron for current operations, Skinners Gold will help us to regenerate our Carrier Strike capabilities – basically we will learn from the French to get ready for the introduction of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” said Lt Cdr James Taylor, 849’s senior observer.