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Bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein being used as a waypoint as the Sea King heads to the Alps
Cpl Lee Smart navigates from the bubble-window of his Sea King helicopter
A rearward facing photo taken from the cargo door with a view into the Alps
Sub Lt Dan Howes’ view of the mountains from inside the aircraft the cockpit
Sub Lt Dan Howes pilots his helicopter in the challenging terrain

Commando fliers hone their skills in the Bavarian Alps

Published: 06 Feb 2013

Three Commando Helicopter Force Sea Kings have decamped from their base in Somerset to southern Germany to give air and ground crews a chance to hone their mountain skills.

The men and women from 848 Naval Air Squadron are spending a fortnight at Penzling, west of Munich, where they’ll learn the skills and techniques which are vital to CHF’s mission in Afghanistan – the training unit which feeds the front-line ‘Junglie’ squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force with pilots, aircrewmen and technicians – have flown to Bavaria to enhance the essential flying skills they require around the snow-covered peaks.

Every two years, the fliers from RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset head to the mountains for a critical part of training which turns men and women who can already fly helicopters into Commando Helicopter Force air and ground crew who can handle Sea Kings in all conditions on the front-line to support Royal Marines on the ground.

Throughout their time in Bavaria, the Junglies are being hosted by Lufttransportgeschwader 61 (Air Transport Squadron 61) in Penzing, Landsberg – three dozen miles west of Munich (and, for history buffs, the town where Hitler was imprisoned in the 1920s for his failed attempt to overthrow the German government).

From Penzing they are carrying out valley flying, pinnacle and ridge approaches and, importantly, wind-finding and assessment techniques. All these sorties are identical to those carried out by Commando Helicopter Force front-line crews currently flying in Afghanistan.

And while these 848 fliers are busy in the Alps, some of their CHF comrades are 1,500 miles to the north conducting cold weather training in northern Norway, well inside the Arctic Circle.

The training in southern Germany will be extremely valuable for both student aircrew, operating in an unfamiliar and challenging environment, and also the engineering crews working in a foreign country away from the comforts of their home base.

It’s not just the Alpine passes they’re now flying around which are monumental; there was a mountain to climb in terms of planning to get to Bavaria as well.

It took the three CHF helicopters two days to reach Bavaria from their Somerset base, as AB Ashleigh White, a student aircrewman, explains.

“We were all looking forward to getting out there. As a trainee, I and the other ten students spent weeks planning the route. There are plenty of additional considerations we needed to think about: diplomatic clearance, flight plans, foreign laws and regulations – all this on top of the usual factors such as diversion plans, foul weather routes, ‘down bird’ and emergency procedures.

“We also got to practise some rapid re-planning when one of the airfields we were going to refuel at closed at the last minute due to weather. Whilst you can’t plan for all eventualities safety is our number one priority.”

No matter how thorough the planning, the crews have to maintain a degree of flexibility and forethought. Sub Lt Dan Howes, a trainee pilot, experienced this first hand as he guided his Sea King over Germany.

“Just as we crossed into Germany, the aircraft had a generator failure,” he explained. “This is when our training kicked in and we reacted accordingly. We diverted to a nearby airfield and our skilful engineers we had on board swiftly resolved the problem and we re-planned the route. Due to the delay we now knew that it would take two days to finish the transit, so we planned for an overnight stop in Wiesbaden – a US Air Force base.

“The following morning we arrived at Penzing with no further snags and began preparation for the mountain flying.”

As for Neuschwanstein, Ludwig II’s 19th-Century Romanesque castle – as featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the inspiration for Disneyland’s ‘sleeping beauty’ castle –lies about 40 miles south of Penzing.

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