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Published: 20 Jul 2020

The helicopter guardians of the nation’s biggest warship have been named the safest of the safe for their work over the past 12 months.

All Fleet Air Arm squadrons pride themselves on exemplary safety records in peace and war, but naval aviation’s senior officers decided 820 Naval Air Squadron stood out especially.


The squadron is permanently assigned to carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, acting as her shield against submarine attack as well as scouting threats on the surface and performing general duties.


Home is not just the biggest flight deck in the Navy, but also the busiest; the squadron shares it (and the hangar and surrounding airspace) with F-35 Lightning jets, troop-carrying Merlins and, frequently, RAF Chinooks, and Navy Wildcat helicopters… plus visiting aircraft from allied nations.


That they have done so seamlessly earned the Culdrose-based squadron the Bambara Flight Safety Shield, awarded for developing “a robust safety management system and good relationship with command during the numerous embarkations on HMS Queen Elizabeth, whilst never losing sight of the hazards inherent in aviation.”


The shield was presented on board in the middle of Exercise Crimson Ocean, a five-day operational test of Queen Elizabeth, HMS Kent, a hunter-killer submarine and the carrier air group in the North Sea.

Groupex this autumn builds on what participants learned during Crimson with half a dozen Merlins embarking on the carrier for a large-scale exercise designed to fully integrate the entire strike group ahead of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden deployment in the new year.


As well as acting as the carrier’s eyes and ears against submarine threats (“pingers”), 820 will take on the additional responsibility of her eyes in the sky too, merging with 849 Squadron to take on Airborne Surveillance and Control, watching for airborne threats and helping to direct carrier air power on to targets courtesy of the Crowsnest variant of the Merlin (like the Sea King version before it, a radar in large black sack sticking out of the helicopter’s fuselage earning the nickname “baggers”).


“Combining warfare expertise in anti-submarine and airborne surveillance and control under one single squadron badge will give the Fleet Air Arm the best possible deploying unit to take carrier strike forward into the next generation,” said Commander Ian ‘Reg’ Varley, 820’s Commanding Officer.


“I look forward to seeing waves of Pingers and Baggers launching together from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth under the single identity of 820 Naval Air Squadron.”


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