Commando Helicopter Force Arctic Training
Exercise Clockwork is the Commando Helicopter Force’s annual chance to test their mettle – and metal – in the harsh winter of northern Norway.
Based at a dedicated site on the Royal Norwegian Air Force base at Bardufoss, almost 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Clockwork is as valid a training exercise in 2012 as it has ever been, because the one great, constant enemy of the military is the environment.
If you can survive and fight here, where the temperature plunges more than 30 degrees Celsius below zero and the snowdrifts pile several feet high, then you can survive and fight anywhere.
The main thrust of the training is to ensure the Junglies – the squadrons which carry Royal Marines into battle and support their campaign – can do just that.
The proof of that is in the final three-day FOBEX or Forward Operating Base EXercise, which ends today, and which has seen more than 100 people from 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons (Sea Kings) and 847 Squadron (Lynx) living out in the field – in this case, a snow field.
Temperatures have been relatively mild, dropping no lower tha seven or eight degrees below zero, though that is not necessarily a good thing – one of the Lynx pilots, Lt Ben Daniel, explained that around minus ten is about right as the snow is crisp and dry, and can be brushed off equipment and machinery.
Anything closer to zero means damp snow, and cold and wet is a very unpleasant combination for both personnel and helicopters. And it is not just of benefit to the Navy – the RAF regularly send Chinooks out to Bardufoss, and the Army Air Corps are also familiar with the pleasures of Arctic aviation training.
The FOB is due back on the Clockwork site later this afternoon, some brought in by helicopter, the rest by road.
But that is by no means the sum total of training – far from it.
In order to take part in Clockwork, all personnel (whether part of the CHF, itself a component of the tri-Service Joint Helicopter Command, or of the Clockwork ‘enabling team’) have to pass Basic Military Acquaint Course (Air 338), which equips sailors to live and fight ashore.
With that box ticked, everybody – from Officer Commanding Clockwork, Maj Dave West RM, to the most junior rating – has to have passed the Cold Weather Survival Course, which includes at least one night out in a snowhole or shelter and the dreaded ice-breaking drills, where each individual jumps into a hole cut into the ice of a lake, pushes out their packed bergen (backpack) and then hauls themselves out using their ski poles.
With the water near freezing point and the air temperature in the minus 20s, it is known to be an ‘emotional’ experience...
Personal administration is crucial here – get it wrong and you are liable to cold-weather injury. A touch of frostnip or hypothermia and that is Clockwork over for you; you will be sent home to recover, and in all probability you will get it right next time, a lesson learned the hard way.
Suitably trained to survive in the bitter cold, personnel on the squadrons then learn, or remind themselves, how to work in conditions where the skin of your hand will stick to bare metal s as if held by superglue and where the weather can ruin a flying sortie in minutes.
Bardufoss lies at the heart of a number of military ranges, allowing a wide variety of training exercises for air crew, and its position in the heart of a group of mountains means the tricky task of judging cloud, weather, winds, turbulence and visibility while carrying out a military mission can be practised close to the base.
Landing a helicopter in cold, deep snow produces a disorientating ‘whiteout’, requiring an procedure that must be practised time and time again, as experience is the pilot’s greatest ally (apart from an astute aircrewman leaning out of the door and helping guide the aircraft down).
If a pilot is a dab hand at landing his or her machine here, then the similar ‘brownouts’ of Afghanistan can also be approached with confidence.
And as one of the pilots mentioned, early morning starts in an Afghan winter meant temperatures dipping below zero, and dropping rapidly as they become airborne.
Engineers work in horrible conditions, learning how long it takes to do the simplest tasks when you factor in the cold and the amount of protective clothing worn. Both air and ground crew learn how to deal with underslung loads in the same manner.
The team-building element is also of enormous value in terms of morale and esprit de corps, and can make a crucial difference when it comes to the crunch in a front-line unit such as the CHF.
So Clockwork concludes with a FOBEX, and that’s it, training over. Except it isn’t.
Because Bardufoss lies close to the fjords south of Tromso, which happens to be the area where Exercise Cold Response gets under way early next week.
Led by assault ship HMS Bulwark and helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious, Cold Response tests a much larger Naval force in the skills of amphibious assault. And as part of that, the Commando Helicopter Force will fly from the carrier and set up a FOB ashore in the harsh Norwegian environment.
And if that isn’t enough training, then the CHF moves on next month to Exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland. Warm-weather exercises are also in the programme towards the end of summer – by which time Clockwork 2012-13 will be starting to wind up.