Kingfishers go hunting in the Mediterranean
Anti-submarine Helicopters from 829 Naval Air Squadron - The Kingfishers- have recently returned from exercising over the azure blue waters off the South of France.
The Kingfishers took two Merlin Mk 2 aircraft from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall to the French Base d’Aéronautique Navale (Naval Air Station) Hyères, ten miles outsideToulon for the upgraded aircraft's inaugural run out in the Mediterranean. Chasing French hunter-killer submarines, however, wasn't a priority on this particular detachment.
The boat they were tracking was rather more elusive as the world’s most advanced submarine-hunting helicopter and Britain’s most advanced boat, HMS Astute, locked horns for the first time in theMediterranean. The waters aroundToulon– the French Navy’s principal base in the Med – are around 5°C warmer than those around the Lizard peninsula and temperature layers, plus the sea’s salinity, affect how sonar performs, so it’s crucial that the hunters practice in all possible environments.
As well as trying to avoid detection either by Merlin's dipping sonar which actively seeks out targets by sending pings through the water, or sonobuoys that passively listen for any movement underwater, Astute was assessing potential submarine commanders. It was the first time an A-boat was hosting the Submarine Command Course – better known throughout the Silent Service as the "Perisher".
“An A-class submarine is an extremely advanced next generation submarine that understandably makes it a formidable opponent,” said 829 Naval Air Squadron’s Commanding Officer Lt Cdr Phil Beacham. “The Mediterranean offers a very different oceanographic profile to the South-West Approaches, providing very beneficial training.”
Although theCôte d'Azur conjures up dreamy images of golden sands and peerless skies, during their fortnight on the French Riviera, the Merlins were hampered by a traditional Cornish foe (widespread fog) and a less common weather phenomenon: hail the size of golf balls. That said, the fliers got in 17 hours of hunting – Hyères operates round the clock, so there were even missions at 4am – thanks not least to the efforts of three dozen engineers, technicians and ground crew, plus 829’s French hosts, the Caiman Squadron and their NH90 helicopters.
“Our liaison with the French Navy should not be undersold – they were extremely helpful in all regards,” said Lt Cdr Beacham. “This was a rare opportunity to operate a small team out of a foreign airbase and build relations with the NH90 community – their helicopter has a very similar sonar to ours allowing us to share lessons and experiences.”
The squadron – which provides Merlin flights (helicopter plus aircrew and engineers) for Royal Navy Frigates and Destroyers – is now back at RNAS Culdrose, but hopeful of more co-operation between the Merlin and NH90 community, particularly as there is a very useful instrument range near Toulon.