Farewell to Merlin Mk1
About to lift off from the tarmac at St Athan to join its green counterpart in the skies of South Wales is a Merlin of 829 Naval Air Squadron.
Typically, a fairly ordinary sight – except that this is the final flight by the first-generation grey Merlin in UK skies.
The 120-mile hop from the Vale of Glamorgan back to the Kingfishers’ base at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall at the end of a training exercise brought the curtain down on more than 14 years of the 14-tonne helicopter flying around Britain – and especially the south-west tip of Cornwall.
The Mk1 fleet is in the final stages of a £750m revamp turning the original Merlin into the upgraded Mk2 which looks virtually identical from the outside, but inside is a generational leap forward with fully computerised displays for both the pilots and the observers leading the hunt against pirates, smugglers and especially enemy submarines.
Four Merlin squadrons are based at Culdrose – 820 (which typically deploys en masse with capital ships), training unit 824, 829 and the Flying Tigers of 814. 829 NAS was formed in 2004 to provide Merlin flights (helicopter, aircrew, engineers) for Type 23 frigates (and can supply them to Type 45 destroyers if required).
829 Naval Air Squadron – The Kingfishers - are celebrating their 10th anniversary since recommissioning as a Squadron in 2004. But they are not waiting for a party to start with such a full programme ahead to keep them occupied.
Over the past 10 years the Squadron is known for being one of the busiest at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, they are continually on the move; whether at Sea, returning from Sea or preparing for Sea. The Squadron provides helicopters for operations across the Globe on some of the Royal Navy’s Type-23 Frigates and Type45 destroyers.
They operate around a Flight system consisting of a Headquarters for continuation training & administration and six independent Flights. They each have a single Merlin helicopter with two pilots, an observer and an aircrewman for flying duties and seven engineers to maintain the aircraft. Whilst Merlin’s primary role is Anti-Submarine Warfare the versatile aircraft often finds itself engaged in a wide variety of roles, reacting to tasking often at very short notice.
Due to its size, speed and proven capability Merlin is also used in Maritime Security Operations. It is large enough to carry Royal Marines for sniper operations and boarding via fast roping, both which are vital to counter the threat of pirates. It is also fitted with a heavy machine gun as well as thermal imaging equipment and a variety of other sensors.
"829 Squadron has a proud history of service on frigates and destroyers over the past decade,” said Lieutenant Commander Philip Beacham, Commanding Officer 829 NAS. “A Royal Navy Ship along with its Merlin helicopter is a proven, potent and effective fighting force.”
The 10th Anniversary also co-insides with the final flight for The Kingfishers last Merlin Mk 1, before being replaced by its updated brother and making the Squadron fully Merlin Mk 2 equipped.
“Operating from a pitching and rolling flight deck on the back of a Royal Navy ship somewhere in the North Atlantic can be very challenging,” said Lt Cdr Amy Gaunt, 05 Flight Commander who are attached to type 23 frigate HMS Westminster. “Being integral to the Ship’s Company and working closely with the Ship’s Ops room can be very rewarding and satisfying. The Merlin performs well on several levels. Soon 05 Flight will lose its Mk 1 for an upgraded Mk 2. From the outside they look pretty much the same, apart from a few aerials and sensors, but a glimpse inside reveals a totally new world of awe!”
The vastly upgraded avionics of Merlin Mk2 brings an awful lot to future operations whether sub-hunting or as was proven last year when an 829 NAS Merlin was deployed on Cougar 2013. Embarked with HMS Illustrious 01 Flight was reaching the final stages of its deployment, when they were re-tasked to support theUKefforts on Operation Patwin in thePhilippines. Within hours of arriving in the area they were airborne carrying out reconnaissance flights over theIslandshit by Typhoon Haiyan. Assessing the devastation and deploying response teams to isolated villages, in some cases being the first to arrive.
CO, Lt Cdr Phil Beacham added, “In some ways the loss of our last Mk 1 Merlin on 829 is a little sad, however, what it really denotes is the start of a really exiting and rewarding era for the Squadron and Merlin Force. 829 is an immensely capable Squadron and we relish the challenges and opportunities which Merlin Mk2 will allow us to fulfil in the future.”
There is a handful of Mk1s deployed with ships in the Middle East on maritime security patrols but once the squadron’s mission is done the helicopters will be shipped back to Blighty for upgrading.