Baggers pass 1,000-mission milestone in Gulf heat
Culdrose fliers have completed more than 1,000 sorties in the punishing heat of the Gulf trying to root out terrorists and smugglers.
The Baggers of 849 Naval Air Squadron have spent more than 1,800 hours – more than 35 entire weeks – in Gulf skies monitoring activity below since arriving in theatre at the end of 2014.
The Sea Kings of 849 Naval Air Squadron are helping international military leaders build up a crucial picture of ordinary life – so that anything untoward sticks out like a sore thumb.
Three Flights (detachments of two Sea King Mk7 helicopters, plus air and ground crew) from the Cornish squadron take it in turns to spend a few months of a time monitoring seafaring activity in the region.
Since switching to the Gulf from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the veteran helicopters – the last Sea Kings in front-line service with the Armed Forces – have completed 1,000 missions, totaling more than 1,800 hours airborne (that’s at least 35 whole weeks – or eight months).
The Sea Kings were designed to act as ‘eyes in the skies’ of the Invincible-class carriers, spying incoming aerial threats so the Harriers could intercept.
But in their current incarnation, their radar is equally adept at tracking ground movements – a feature used to effect against Saddam Hussein’s armour outside Basra in 2003 and for five years over Afghanistan tracking insurgents and drug runners.
The radar – rotating inside the large dome or bag which gives the aircraft its nickname, but more importantly protects the multi-million-pound equipment from the harsh Gulf elements – can detect between 180-240 contacts of all shapes and sizes, from oil rigs to down jet skis.
It’s down to the observers to filter these contacts, deciding what is part of the normal pattern of life, and what is not.
If the latter is detected the entire machinery of the Combined Maritime Forces – the two-dozen-plus nations committed to keeping the sea lanes of the Gulf, Arabian and Red Seas and Indian Ocean open to lawful seafarers while stopping criminal activity at the same time – can come into play, with warships directed to intercept.
Given the size of the area which lies within CMF’s domain – nearly 15 times the size of the North Sea – and the small number of ships, helicopters and patrol aircraft involved, it’s a difficult task.
Now add the challenges of the Middle East climate.
“We fly around five hours a day and have trips lasting up to three and a half hours,” explained Normandy Flight’s Operations Officer Lt Dan Bassett.
“Being a single-pilot aircraft, the pilot obviously cannot get out of their seat and have their hands on controls for the entire flight.
“That’s very taxing considering there is no air conditioning in the aircraft and temperatures on the ground can reach over 50°C plus (normally 30-35°C while flying).
“The crew have to thoroughly prepare before the longer trips, taking toilet bags, water and food (sweets). We get bag meal for flights over meal times, which usually end up being a little wilted…”