MERLINS CELEBRATE TEN YEARS ON GULF OPERATIONS
Royal Navy helicopters are celebrating ten years – including more than 14 months in the skies – searching for pirates, terrorists and smugglers in the Middle East.
The Merlins of 820 and 814 Naval Air Squadrons have spent a full decade patrolling the Arabian Sea – the longest sustained overseas mission by the Fleet Air Arm since the Balkans crisis.
The two squadrons were established originally to operate from the flight deck of a Royal Navy aircraft carrier on sub-hunting duties, but their suite of sensors, particularly in the Merlin Mk2 are also suited to tracking surface contacts.
This has led to one squadron deployed to the Middle East for a year at a time from 2006 to keep an eye on maritime traffic at a time when there were growing concerns about piracy off the Horn of Africa. They also there to keep an eye on the long-standing problem of drugs being transported to the West from central Asia… with the proceeds most likely funding terrorist activities.
Flying roughly one sortie a day, the Merlins have over the past couple of clocked up more than 10,000 hours in Middle East skies, equivalent to over 60 entire weeks airborne. It is their job to scour hundreds of square miles of ocean every mission, using their radar to scan for contacts of interest, and helping Coalition warships on the surface on the lookout for suspicious vessels.
Just for good measure, the helicopters are on standby to perform search, rescue duties, and evacuate casualties from allied warships or merchant vessels. A typical sortie can lasts up to four hours, where often temperatures inside the helicopters regularly break the 50°C barrier in the summer. This can reach significantly higher with the reflection from concrete runways and hard standings for engineers toiling on the ground to keep the helicopters serviceable.
The technicians also have to contend with local wildlife, which is eager to sneak aboard the helicopters – camel spiders (evil-looking beasties that are actually closer to scorpions than spiders, but not venomous) and snakes especially. An established long-distance supply line is in place to support the men, women, machines and spare parts that engineers and aircrew rely on stretching all the way back to the home of the Merlin Helicopter Force at RNAS Culdrose.
Commander Jon Holroyd Commanding Officer of 820 NAS and the man in charge of the east-of-Suez operation on its tenth anniversary is delighted and proud of the men and women under him, who have risen to every challenge.
“I am immensely proud of the efforts my aircrew and engineers puts into delivering aircraft in an expeditious and safe manner, whatever the time and whatever the weather. The Merlin is such an adaptable helicopter and my personnel flexible in their nature, which means as a squadron we are equally as capable of working in the temperate climes of the UK or the harsh heat of the Gulf.”
820 NAS are in the process of trading places with the ‘Flying Tigers’ of 814 NAS, as the former squadron gets ready to be the first Fleet Air Arm formation to be assigned to new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.