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Trailblazers lead the way for future commando helicopter
3 July 2012

The head of the Commando Helicopter Force visited the trailblazers for the future wings of the Royal Marines as get to grips with the replacement for the venerable Sea King.

From 2016, the Merlin will be the mainstay of operations by the Yeovilton-based Force, which has sent engineers and aircrew to RAF Benson to train to fly and maintain the helicopter.

A Merlin Mk3 throws up dust and vegetation during a helicopter assault by Royal Marines in Afghanistan in 2011. Picture: LA(Phot) Hamish Burke, RN Photographer of the Year

MORE than forty aircrew and engineers are laying the foundations for the future of the Commando Helicopter Force by getting to grips with its new aircraft – helped by the RAF.

In under four years, the Merlin, not the redoubtable Sea King, will be the mainstay of global operations by the force, the wings of the Royal Marines.

Since February Fleet Air Arm engineers – followed in April by six pilots and six aircrewmen – have been at Benson in Oxfordshire, the RAF’s home of the Merlin, to learn how to fly, fight and maintain the helicopter.

The Fleet Air Arm has been flying Merlins since the late 1990s, but it’s a different model from that which will enter service with the CHF – nicknamed the Junglies – in 2016.

The commando fliers, based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, will get their hands on the Mk4, an improved version of the Mk3 currently flown by two Royal Air Force squadron, 28 and 78.

The Merlin Mk3 can carry two dozen troops with kit, or in a ‘flying ambulance’ role, 16 casualties on stretchers. It can also lift artillery pieces, Land Rovers, or five tonnes of equipment slung beneath it if required. It doesn’t have a sonar and submarine hunting kit like its Royal Navy counterpart – but it does have a stern ramp for troops to climb on and off.

Troops board an RAF Merlin at Camp Basion in Helmand. Picture: PO(Phot) Mez Merrill, Commando Helicopter Force

The RAF has more than a decade’s experience of operating their Merlins over Bosnia, Iraq and, most recently, in support of the international mission in Afghanistan – experience they are now passing on to their Senior Service comrades.

All the RN personnel now training at Benson have years of experience to their names. The maintainers are a mix of long-standing Sea King and Merlin engineers and technicians, while the aircrews are experienced aviators with significant ‘Jungly’ credentials; all the pilots are Qualified Helicopter Instructors and five of the crewmen are Qualified Aircrewmen Instructors.

Once all are fully trained on the Merlin, they will pass on their knowledge to the rest of the Commando Helicopter Force.

Despite their previous experience, they have all had to adapt to the Merlin’s digital cockpit and computer-based training in both the simulator and classroom.

Capt Matt Briers, CO of CHF (in the centre in the white shirt) with some of the trailblazers from his force at RAF Benson. Picture: Cpl Phil Major, RAF

Such challenges are being overcome with gusto, as Capt Matt Briers, the head of the Commando Helicopter Force, found when he visited the ‘vanguard’ of Fleet Air Arm personnel at RAF Benson to see the progress being made.

“I am absolutely delighted that transition has got off to such an excellent start, the RN contingent have been warmly welcomed by their RAF counter-parts and have already started to make a notable contribution to the engineering effort,” he said.

“The professionalism and drive of our people to get involved in all aspects of the RAF Merlin Force has made an excellent impression across both front-line squadrons at RAF Benson.

“They have also got heavily immersed on deployed operations, both on pre-deployment-training in Jordan and in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick.

“In this joint environment, a number of the key engineering posts are now occupied by Royal Navy senior ratings through the Flight and watch system as the two Services fuse together with a common aim – operational output.

“That said, while working in an Air Force squadron, the Royal Navy ethos is strongly enforced through the divisional system, robust Jackspeak and the occasional outburst of good natured banter!”

Three CHF squadrons currently fly the Sea King Mk4, which has seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq: front-line 845 and 846 NAS, plus the training squadron 848 NAS.