The first five next-generation Merlins have been handed over to crews at Culdrose to prepare the souped-up helicopter for front-line duties.
The innards of the Mk1 has been ripped out and replaced in a £750m upgrade of the Merlin fleet to ensure it stays one step ahead of our foes until the end of the next decade.
An 824 Merlin crew walk back to their squadron’s buildings at Culdrose after completing a training mission: Picture: Andrew Linnett, DE&S
THE first batch of next-generation submarine hunting helicopters has been delivered to RNAS Culdrose.
Five Merlin Mk2s are now in the hands of 824 Naval Air Squadron, whose air and ground crew will spend the next 12 months learning how to get the most out of the souped-up helicopter before it deploys on operations for the first time.
Some of 30 of the 38 Mk1s – all based at Culdrose since the late ’90s and deployed on front-line duties since 2001 – are being converted into Mk2s in a £750m overhaul by Lockheed Martin and Agusta Westland.
From the hi-tech digital cockpit to the computer mission system in the back of the cab, the Mk1 was a revolution and a revelation, hence its billing as ‘the best submarine-hunting helicopter in the world’.
But some of its equipment is now getting on for 20 years old – and nothing dates faster than technology, hence the need for an upgrade to keep pace with change.
Merlin Mk2s on the standings at Culdrose. Picture: LA(Phot) Abbie Herron, RNAS Culdrose
After a decade of designing, programming and finally fitting out, the first of the successors – ‘the world’s most technologically advanced anti-submarine and maritime patrol helicopter’ are now being rolled out.
“Outwardly Merlin Mk2 is very similar to its predecessor – only the keenest aviation enthusiast would notice the physical difference,” said Cdre Andy Lison, who oversees Merlin, Lynx and Sea King teams at the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation.
“It’s inside where the hard work has been done.”
So there’s a new state-of-the-art glass cockpit with night vision capability for the pilots.
And for the observer and aircrewman, a combat system with touch screen display fusing the data collected by the helicopter’s radar, sonobuoys and dipping sonar. That data can be shared with other ships or aircraft.
824 NAS’ Lt Cdr Simon Laurence tries out the new cockpit lay-out on the Merlin Mk2. Picture: Andrew Linnett, DE&S
Cdre Lison said the first decade or so of Merlin operations had shown that it was much more than a submarine hunter – and that its wider mission is reflected in the Mk2.
So it will be much easier to convert to carry up to a dozen stretchers in the event of casualty evacuation, there’s space for up to 16 troops, and it can mount the M3M machine-gun when it’s on counter-piracy and ‘policing’ patrols, principally over the Caribbean, Gulf or Indian Ocean.
The whole package, says the commodore, gives the Fleet Air Arm a “truly exceptional” helicopter. “With the Mark 2, the Merlin has come of age.”
The £750m upgrade covers not just the helicopters themselves but spare parts, simulators and publications to support the new aircraft.
As the training squadron for all Merlin air and ground crew it falls upon 824 NAS to prepare fully-qualified personnel for front-line duties, either with the ‘carrier squadrons’ 814 and 820 NAS, which typically deploy en masse on a Royal Navy carrier, or 829 NAS which provides Merlin flights for Type 23 frigates, such as HMS Kent currently deployed east of Suez.
The first Mk2 is due to deploy on operations next summer.