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Lava’s in the air – Merlins keep an eye on Mount Etna’s fury
17 March 2017

Merlins from 814 NAS broke off from submarine-hunting duties in Sicily to take a unique look at Mount Etna as the volcano was in full flow.

Crews used their infra-red cameras to zoom in on the violent activity on the mountain as they returned to their temporary base near the city of Catania.

THIS is Europe’s liveliest volcano as you’ve never seen it before – through the eyes of Royal Navy Merlin helicopter crews.

Attending one of Europe’s largest submarine hunting exercises in Sicily, the Flying Tigers of 814 Naval Air Squadron turned their hi-tech sensors skywards to record the violent activity of Mount Etna.

The helicopters’ infra-red cameras are normally used to locate targets at night or in bad weather – either on the surface or even under the water.

One of the Merlins passes a smouldering Etna on its return to Sigonella. Picture: LPhot Guy Pool

But after a mock attack on a Spanish submarine in the Mediterranean, crews flew past Etna – from a safe distance – to capture the current eruptions before returning to their base at Sigonella, 20 miles south of the lava-spewing mountain.

“We know the equipment and sensors that we use to find and track submarines on our Merlin helicopters are world class, but this shows the level of clarity too,” said CPO(ACMN) Ian Macmeikan, who collected the images as the helicopter returned to base.

“I’ve used the infra-red cameras to find all sorts of ships and submarines on the surface of the sea or under it, but I’ve never seen it pick up an erupting volcano before.”

Despite the mesmerising sight of Nature in full force, engineers with the Merlin detachment are keeping a very close eye on the debris Etna is constantly hurling into the Sicilian atmosphere, conscious that the ash and dust can pose a serious threat to the multi-million pound helicopters and their four-strong aircrew.

“Volcanic ash can be very dangerous should it get into an aircraft’s engine,” explained WO Ian Morcom, 814 NAS’s Senior Maintenance Rating.

“In light of Etna’s current activity, we will be ready to react should an ash cloud develop near the area we are operating in. The engineers are keeping their eyes out for any deposits of volcanic ash on the helicopters – the best way of telling is to look at the colour of their hands after working on the helicopter and see if they are black.

“As a precautionary measure, we will carry out additional washes of the engines to ensure safe flight. This kind of thing is not unusual for us, we are used to reacting quickly to different operating conditions and weather.”