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Navy’s first Wildcat makes its debut in Somerset skies
28 January 2013

The first of the Navy’s next-generation helicopters – the Wildcat – has made its maiden flight in Somerset.

After a few years of testing protoypes, ZZ397 is the first front-line production model of the replacement for the Lynx to roll off the AgustaWestland line in Yeovil.

Pictures: AgustaWestland

WITH the Somerset countryside flashing past in a blur, this is the very first front-line model of the Fleet Air Arm’s new helicopter taking flight.

This is the first of 28 Wildcats which will be the backbone of Navy operations at home and around the globe in just two years’ time, taking over from the long-serving Lynx.

Prototypes of Wildcat have been flying for a few years – and have undergone more than 700 hours of trials and tests in the skies around the UK, including deck landings on HMS Iron Duke 12 months ago.

And the Army Air Corps has its hands on 11 of its versions of Wildcat (which are slightly, but not significantly different).

But ZZ397 is the first true Wildcat HMA2 – Helicopter Maritime Attack Mk2 – which will see active service in the hands of Fleet Air Arm aviators.

It took flight from Agusta Westland’s Yeovil factory – the first of at least four of the naval variants to be delivered this year.

“Outside Wildcat is recognisable as the same breed as its Lynx predecessor – but inside its altogether a different beast,” said Lt Cdr Paul Allen of the Wildcat team at Yeovilton.

On the flying side, the new helicopter has more powerful engines – giving the pilot around one third more power than a Lynx – and new avionics.

And on the fighting side, there’s a glass cockpit with four large colour displays, replacing dials and screens of old. Brimming with sensors, hi-tech communications kit, the latest GPS and navigation system, Seaspray radar which provides 360˚ surveillance, a Wescam electro-optic system mounted in the nose turret which has infra-red, TV and laser designation for surveillance and combat.

As for firepower: Sting Ray torpedoes, a .5in  M3M machine-gun mounted by the side door and new light and heavy versions of the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon – the next-generation missile for use against targets at sea and on land.

All in all, fully loaded.

The first air and ground crew from 700W (W for Wildcat) Naval Air Squadron have been trained on how to fly and maintain the helicopter – which builds on some of the best bits of Lynx, but is much more advanced and complex.

Once Wildcat is officially ‘released to service’ later this spring – a document which authorises flying – 700W will begin working out ‘tactical development’, namely how to use the helicopter and all its Gucci new kit on front-line operations, as well as devising the courses which will train existing and future air and ground crew in Wildcat operations.

Once they’ve done that, 702 NAS – the training squadron which feeds the front-line flights of 815 NAS – will begin teaching personnel.

The maritime Wildcat is due to be declared operational in early 2015.

In all, 62 Wildcats are being bought by the MOD to replace the existing Mk8s flown by 702 and 815 NAS and the Mk9s flown by the Army Air Corps and 847 NAS.

When they return from their current deployment in Afghanistan, 847 will begin converting to Wildcat, flying the Army’s variant.