Northumberland's Merlin flies home to Culdrose
Seven months of pirate-busting in the Indian Ocean are over for 14 air and ground crew of 829 Naval Air Squadron as they fly home to Culdrose. 05 Flight flew more 150 missions from frigate HMS Northumberland and thwarted drug runners delivering over £5m cannabis when their Merlin helicopter intercepted two fast boats. The 14-strong team have flown the equivalent of 1.2 times around the world – nearly 29,000 miles – in the Royal Navy’s ongoing struggle against piracy and other criminal activity in the Indian Ocean.
The highlight of the time away for 05 Flight of 829 Naval Air Squadron – the formation which provides the RN’s Type 23 frigates with Merlins – was a £5m drugs bust, in which the helicopter was instrumental.
“We’d launched on a routine surface search sortie and were very quickly interested by two fast moving contacts,” said pilot Lt Mike ‘Howie’ Howe. “We managed to get a closer look and sure enough both boats were laden with bails and fuel drums – certainly worth pursuing.”
Pursue Northumberland and Merlin did. As soon as the runners sighted the ship, sea boats and helicopter, they “put pedal to metal” said Lt Howe and began tossing bales of cannabis overboard before surrendering.
“It was a big moment,” said Merlin maintainer LAET Matt Thirkle. “We all wanted that big bust and it would be disappointing to come home without a headline. We were all hungry for more after that.”
Sadly, it wasn’t to be; that was the sole bust of the deployment by Northumberland, which arrives in Devonport on 10 May, her mission too complete.
The helicopter was also asked to help when a merchant ship caught fire in pirate-prone waters off the coast of Somali. The Merlin found thick smoke pouring from its funnel – but they also realised the crew had it under control. However, the helicopter hung around as a very visible deterrence against any pirates who might try to hijack the stricken merchantman. In all, 05 Flight clocked up 150 sorties totalling nearly 250 hours airborne, flying the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats nearly 50 times, while the Merlin’s radar swept an area 40 times the size of the UK. Such a high tempo placed a tremendous demand on the 14-strong team. The average temperature while deployed east of Suez was over 30°C – at times it was nearly 40°C. By the end, said WO2 Dave Baxter, the flight’s Senior Maintenance Rating, they’d become a “well-oiled machine”.
Each day his maintenance team carried out an ‘MOT’ on the helicopter to ensure it was fit to fly. While it was airborne they kept the hangar clean, painted jacks and sorted out material and, once it landed, they serviced the Merlin ready for the next day’s flying.
“We’ve all put in some very long hours up to this point and met some significant challenges along the way. The trick is to meet every challenge with a sense of humour, it keeps us going,” WO2 Baxter said.
CPO(AET) Chris Thurgood added: “The maintenance plan for a Merlin deployment is a mammoth task and takes months of planning prior to embarkation. “She’s a very complicated beast with 100s of complex systems and components so having everything you need to maintain her is like packing for a seven-month trip where you don’t know exactly where you might end up.”
The flight left Northumberland in Falmouth Bay, just minutes’ flying time from home at Culdrose, where they were treated to a warm welcome (and cold drinks) by their squadron comrades, families and friends.