X-men take to the Cornish skies
The X-men have taken hold in the depths of Cornwall with the formation of the Navy’s first squadron of unmanned aircraft.
700X – X for ‘Xperimental’ – Naval Air Squadron will be at the vanguard of the Fleet Air Arm’s venture into the world of unmanned flight with ‘eyes in the sky’ pilotless aircraft.
The squadron has been established at RNAS Culdrose under the command of Lieutenant Commander Alan Rogers, who was previously CO of 792 NAS, when it was based at Culdrose as the Fleet Target Unit. His new adventure with tactical pilotless aircraft has been established to oversee the deployment of ScanEagle aircraft – Remotely Piloted Air Systems is the official term or RPASes – and to pave the way for similar aircraft in the future.
For nearly a year, ScanEagle has been launched from the decks of HMS Somerset, Northumberland and Cardigan Bay, and is now being flown from HMS Kent, which has just arrived in the Arabian Sea to begin counter-piracy patrols.
Launched by a catapult on a 14ft ramp, ScanEagle can remain airborne for 12 hours operating at ranges of up to 40 miles from the mother ship, beaming live video of what it sees – by day or night, thanks to its electro-optical and infra-red camera – directly into the ship’s operations room.
Since being introduced to ships deployed east of Suez at the beginning of the year, ScanEagle has clocked up nearly 1,500 hours on missions.
It was brought in to provide eyes for the Royal Navy’s minehunting force in the Gulf, but has proved equally useful in counter-piracy and counter-smuggling operations thanks to its ability to constantly watch over a boarding operation – or monitor a suspicious vessel pretty much undetected.
"It’s clear that Scan Eagle is a tremendous asset. The quality of the imagery is superb, even at night-time", said Lieutenant Commander Alan Rogers, CO of 700X NAS. “Commanding officers have nothing but praise for it, but it’s not a replacement for a Merlin or Lynx, rather an addition to the warship’s suite of sensors.”
His squadron has two roles: parent unit for the flights deployed on Royal Navy vessels east of Suez; and to trial and evaluate any future unmanned aircraft which the Fleet Air Arm decides to invest in.
It’s one of the smallest units in the Royal Navy – the three ScanEagle flights total six RN personnel (one officer as Flight Commander, plus one petty officer as the Senior Maintenance Rating each), and a handful of headquarters staff.
His squadron has two roles. A parent unit for the flights deployed as well as trialling and evaluate any future unmanned aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm. It is one of the smallest units in the Royal Navy – the three ScanEagle flights total nine RN personnel (one officer as Flight Commander, one petty officer as the Senior Maintenance Rating and a aircraft controller each), and a handful of headquarters staff.
The RN team in a flight direct the ScanEagle’s operations and a four-strong team from the aircraft’s manufacturer Boeing Insitu fly and maintain it. “This is a fantastic job", Lt Cdr Rogers continues. "It's the Fleet Air Arm’s first step into the world of remotely piloted air systems and we are looking to develop our tactics and embrace this new technology ensuring the Royal Navy remains a world leader in aviation at sea – whether manned or unmanned.”
700 Naval Air Squadron – motto experentia docet (experience teaches) – is one of the varied units in Fleet Air Arm history, having flown most aircraft and helicopters the Royal Navy has operated for the past 75 years.
700 NAS origins can be traced back to January 1940 when it was formed as a "Catapult" squadron with Supermarine Walrus and Fairley Seafox seaplanes that were catapult launched off Battleships and Cruisers. In June of that year a 700 NAS Walrus successfully found the German Battleship Scharnhorst having been launched from HMS Manchester.
Today it is formed to test and evaluate new aircraft ready for use by front-line squadrons and most recently as 700M and 700W has helped with the introduction of Merlin and Wildcat helicopters.