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Would-be wizards hone Merlin skills on RFA Argus off Scotland
20 April 2017

Trainee pilots, observers and aircrewmen hoping to fly the Merlin Mk2 on the front line swapped the simulator for the real thing for some intensive training off Scotland.

They joined aviation training/medical support ship RFA Argus for the experience of operating the £40m helicopter at sea in the middle of the UK’s biggest war games, Joint Warrior.

NOW that’s a bird’s eye view.

Trainee naval aviators on one Merlin helicopter peer down several hundred feet to observe fellow rookies practising deck winching over RFA Argus.

They were thrown into the maelstrom of the biggest war games staged in the UK this spring – bringing added realism to training which determines whether the men and women under assessment can operate a Merlin Mk2 submarine hunter on the front line.

Having learned the basics of flight in Lincolnshire, then the art of operating rotary wing aircraft at RAF Shawbury, the final part of training for pilots, observers and aircrewmen is knowing the ins and outs of their chosen helicopter. Wildcat crews end up at 825 NAS in Yeovilton, Merlin fliers are sent to 824 NAS in Culdrose.

Much of the training is ‘synthetic’ (in the simulator) or theoretical (in the classroom, but around one sixth of the conversion requires a real Merlin, real ship, and real conditions: typically RFA Argus in and around the Lizard peninsula.

With Argus assigned to Joint Warrior – the workout for all three of the UK Armed Forces, plus NATO allies off the western coast of Scotland staged each spring and autumn – there was a change of scenery and tempo for the latest batch of trainees, once they’d mastered the art of landing and taking off from a moving deck by day and night, and coping with emergencies.

An aircrewman practises lifting a stretcher on a becalmed Irish Sea

“Landing on a moving ship at night can be hard work, but you get a great sense of satisfaction when you get the aircraft safely down onto the deck,” said trainee pilot Lt Ross Wiltshire.

Next up: secondary duties, such as from picking up and dropping off underslung loads to the deck, winching simulated casualties in stretchers from the ship and Merlin’s hoist to winch up fuel hoses and refuel from the ship whilst hovering next to it.

Once the first phase was complete, the crews progressed to the tactical part of the detachment: Joint Warrior 17-1.

The students carried out a number of missions where they had to protect the NATO force from various threats, both on and under the water.

For the underwater battle, the crews used the Merlin’s state of the art sonar suite, comprising dipping sonar lowered into the ocean, and sonar buoys, dropped through tubes in the rear of a Merlin, which listen for the tell-tale signature sounds of a boat, in order to locate and track it.

“The tactical sorties were very busy, but it was great to see all our training working when we found a submarine,” said LACMN Josh Bramley, who works hand-in-hand with the observer to hunt ‘Red October’.

The hands-on experience on Argus proved invaluable as the trainees clocked up 170 hours airborne during 108 sorties, setting down on Argus’ deck 239 times.

The trainees have now returned to Culdrose for the final stage of instruction, before being awarded their coveted wings and being assigned to one of the three front-line Merlin squadrons, 814, 820 and 829.