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Lt Ben Brazenall and Flt Lt Chris Carrington Smith
Merlin loadlifting
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Merlin Helicopter with under-slung load past HMS Illustrious off the Albanian coast

Future CHF helicopters join RM in the field

Published: 12 Sep 2013

Commando fliers have been given a taste of the future as their new helicopters joined the Royal Marines in the field for the first time. RAF Merlins flew out to Albanian to work with 3 Commando Brigade and their air power, the Commando Helicopter Force, which is preparing to take on the helicopters in replacement for its veteran Sea Kings.

Royal Marines have been given a glimpse of tomorrow as their future air power joined them on deployment for the first time.

As well as the Royal Navy’s amphibious forces, the green berets ride into battle in the Sea Kings of the Commando Helicopter Force.

The veteran helicopters will be retired after nearly 50 years’ service by 2016. In their place will come the much more modern and powerful Merlin.

The distinctive green giants joined the commandos in Albania – their first taste of operating in the field with the Royal Marines – during the first major exercise of the Navy’s headline deployment of the year, Cougar.

Although the Fleet Air Arm has been flying Merlins since the late 1990s, it’s a different version – designed principally, though not exclusively, for submarine-hunting.

The RAF have been flying the battlefield versions of the Merlin – the Mk3 and Mk3A – for the past decade and have extensive experience of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.For the past 18 months, they’ve been passing on that experience to CHF air and ground at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire ahead of the Sea Kings’ retirement.

The Cougar 13 deployment to the Mediterranean and Middle East provided the first opportunity for the Merlins and marines, in the form of 3 Commando Brigade, to work together in the field.

Having leapfrogged across central Europe to Tirana, the Merlins from 78 Squadron – comprising Royal Navy and Air Force personnel – trained with a detachment of RAF Hawks from 100 Squadron before leaving the airbase for the field, where they were deprived of most of the usual creature comforts.

The CHF team provided more than three dozen personnel to help the Merlins attune to the austere environment, supplying vehicle mechanics, drivers, signallers, chefs and stewards, experts in aviation operations, setting up refuelling stations, a field kitchen, a signals HQ to maintain contact with flagship HMS Bulwark – basically everything they’ve been doing for decades with the Sea Kings.

From this makeshift set-up, the Merlins were expected to work seamlessly with the staff aboard Bulwark – who have a vast operations room and impressive communications suite at their disposal – and meet the front-line demands of the marines, ferrying men and material around southern Albania during the crux of the exercise, as the commandos pushed in from the coast around the port of Vlorë. All of which was played out in real-time.

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.

The RAF Merlins found itself sharing Albanian skies with Army Air Corps Lynx from 659 Squadron and Fleet Air Arm Lynx of 815 NAS operating from the deck of veteran carrier HMS Illustrious, one of ten Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels taking part in the Cougar deployment.

All told, Albanian Lion proved a very useful pointer to how tomorrow’s CHF will look.

“The success of the RAF's detachment has begun to inform Commando Helicopter Force and the Commander UK Task Group as to how it will operate the Merlin in the future,”

said CHF’s Lt Gareth Plunkett.

“There’s still some way to go to achieve the full capability of the force equipped with their Sea King Mk4s, but once the Merlin is adapted for maritime operations, the Commando Helicopter Force will continue to be at the forefront of the Response Force Task Group’s air power.

“The exercise was also a great success for 78 Squadron; they deployed into the field for the first time and operated jointly from an austere location to support 3 Commando Brigade – the first field deployment for the Merlin Mk3.”

The entire CHF force is going through the transition to new helicopters: the two front-line Sea King squadrons, 845 and 846 NAS, plus the ‘feeder’ training squadron 848 are switching to Merlin, while 847 NAS, who provide battlefield reconnaissance and support, have just retired their Lynx and are converting to the successor Wildcat right now.


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