Merlin spreads her wings over St Albans
Under forbidding autumn skies off the South Coast, Petty Officer Nicole Mackie guides the Royal Navy’s newest helicopter safely down on to the flight deck of HMS St Albans.
For the first time since emerging from a £25m revamp in her home base of Portsmouth, the Type 23 frigate has been training with her Merlin Mk2 – creating the ultimate combination of submarine hunters in the Royal Navy.
The helicopter from 829 Naval Air Squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, joined the Saint for three days of intensive training in the English Channel as the frigate readies herself for front-line duties again after being out of action for a year.
Just hours before the ship helped save yachtsman Mick Royton, who was found by St Albans clinging to his stricken trimaran off Portland, the Merlin flew aboard.
Helping to ensure the 14-tonne grey sub hunting helicopter touched down safely was 19-year-old Engineering Technician (Weapon Engineering) Matt Briggs from Skelton who normally looks after the frigate’s hi-tech weapons and sensors, but is earning qualifications to be one of the flight deck team.
“Working with such a large aircraft was fantastic – it only just fits on the flight deck and it is so powerful,” he said. “I have seen plenty of deck landings of the Lynx but this was just awesome.”
St Albans’ Commanding Officer Commander Catherine Jordan – a former helicopter navigator/weapons specialist – was delighted at the chance to see what her improved ship and the 'souped-up' helicopter could do. “It’s apt to have the upgraded Merlin onboard what is now the most up to date Type 23 in the Fleet,” she said. “As a Lynx Observer I understand the additional capability a helicopter and its team bring to a frigate –the Merlin Mk 2 is a very versatile aircraft keeping us at the forefront of tactical development.”
01 Flight– one Merlin plus a team of 15 aircrew, engineers and technicians, is one of five Flights provided by 829 NAS to Type 23 frigates and Type45 Destroyers supporting their front-line operations around the world.
The Flight was assigned to the Saint until she began her refit last year – since when it’s been sent elsewhere. The Merlin team joined HMS Illustrious for last year’s Cougar deployment – and found themselves at the forefront of delivering aid in the Philippines when the veteran carrier was dispatched there to help out on Operation Patwin, in the wake of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan.
The Flight’s exploits earned them the Fleet Air Arm Sword, presented for the finest feat in naval aviation in the past 12 months.
Since then the fliers have switched from the Merlin Mk 1 to its cutting-edge successor, which is being introduced across the four Merlin squadrons based at Culdrose in Cornwall.
“The time with St Albans has given the Flight the opportunity to integrate with a Type 23,” said Merlin Flight Commander Lieutenant Commander Lauren Hulston. "I am very much looking forward to working up with HMS St Albans and delivering a potent war fighting capability with a very capable anti-submarine warfare frigate and Merlin Mk2 operating together.”