RN pilots get their 'wings' on operation
Five Royal Navy pilots have finished training and been awarded their “Wings” on active operation – the first time this has happened since the Falklands War.
The five helicopter pilots, normally based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose were due to round off their intense training course on Royal Fleet Auxiliary aviation support ship RFA Argus this month.
However, at the last minute, the ship was redeployed to Sierra Leone by the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Ministry of Defence to help tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
With only a few weeks of training left a decision was taken to send the five pilots with the ship and now that all are qualified they are expected to begin operational duties within days.
Captain David Eagles, Commanding Officer of RFA Argus, described it as a “unique situation”, one that had not been witnessed in over 30 years.
As a result a formal “Wings” parade was held on the ship’s flight deck attended by RFA, Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel with embarked members of the Royal Marines Band Service adding to the occasion.
“It was an absolute privilege to carry out this presentation on Argus. This training was scheduled to take place on-board but under very different circumstances and conditions,” Captain Eagles said.
He continued, “I believe that this is the first time since the Falklands War that we have carried out training enroute to an operation so this is a unique situation.
“The conditions out here are quite challenging so these five men, and the training team, have done remarkably well and I wish them every success in their future careers.”
RFA Argus sailed from Falmouth on October 17 to provide logistical support in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone.
On-board are three Merlin Mk2 helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron that have begun working around the clock to provide rapid transportation for British medical teams and engineers as well as moving equipment and stores.
The five new pilots will now begin flying operations in support of this mission.
Commander Ross Spooner, Commanding Officer of 820 Naval Air Squadron said: “It really was a fantastic opportunity to celebrate both the completion of five years training and a unique transition to the front-line for those graduating.
“Looking down on the flight deck as the band, guard and divisions formed up for the Wings parade was quite surreal against a back-drop of the West African coast and the demands of Operation Gritrock.
“The ceremony acknowledged not only the degree of personal effort, but the level of support from their families, friends and the excellent training team that guided them every step of the way on this journey
“Undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments of their flying careers, I know their loved ones will regret not being present at the celebrations, but will appreciate the valuable role they are now playing in Sierra Leone.”
In charge of training the newly qualified pilots is Senior Pilot and Training Instructor at 824 Naval Air Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Tony Morris.
He said: “None of the five were fazed by the change to their training programme despite facing vastly different conditions and the addition of an operational element.
“They have had an opportunity like no other and, if anything, demonstrated true skill with the unique circumstances of this deployment framing their training.”
One of the junior pilots receiving his Wings was Lieutenant Max Sloper, 24 said: “Flying in Sierra Leone has been a whole new challenge for me.
“The working conditions in the cockpit can be incredibly hot, and you’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got the hang of it now though.’’