Wings of the Royal Marines train where eagles dare in Bavarian Alps
WITH the leaves on the trees surrounding the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein turning to various shades of brown as autumn sets in, a Merlin helicopter heads for southern Bavaria.
The wings of the Royal Marines - the Commando Helicopter Force - took their new Merlin helicopters to the Alps to teach crews the art of mountain flying.
The men and women of 846 Naval Air Squadron - one of two which are used to carry Royal Marines commandos and their equipment into battle - flew more than 600 miles across Europe from their home at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset to the Luftwaffe base at Kaufbeuren, about 50 miles southwest of Munich and on the northern fringe of the Alps.
The Force normally makes use of Snowdonia for its mountain training - although the scale of the Welsh range limits their training to altitudes of about 3,500ft.
So the squadron jumped at the chance to fly around even more dramatic scenery - and the opportunity of buzzing around mountains and peaks rising up to 10,000ft, where there was a dusting of autumn snow.
While at lower altitudes in the valleys, the fields and meadows were still a lush green but the leaves on trees were beginning to turn.
In addition, Kaufbeuren is just minutes' flying time from King Ludwig II's magical Neuschwanstein, inspiration for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle and Baron Bomburst's home in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - and an unmissable waypoint for pilots navigating to and from the Alps.
The commando fliers' training didn't merely involve wending around the Alpine valleys at up to 180mph, but also carrying out difficult manoeuvres from landing in confined areas to set the 14-tonne helicopter down on slopes to touching the wheels on mountain summits.
In addition the lengthy flight out and back allowed the pilots and aircrewman to hone the art of continental navigation.
And ground crews experienced trying to maintain a state-of-the-art helicopter in unfamiliar surroundings, limited spare parts to fall back on, plus the language barrier of working alongside Luftwaffe personnel.
"We were incredibly lucky with the weather in the mountains and successfully achieved the main training objectives within time available," said the detachment's operations officer Lt Ben Taylor.
"Aside from the flying training it gave personnel valuable experience in operating from a foreign airbase and liaising with their German counterparts. "Hopefully the relationships we have cemented during the detachment with the German Air Force, and in particular at Kaufbeuren, will allow us to make a standing arrangement to achieve training for both qualified aircrew and Merlin conversion."
Before flying home, 30 of the 846 NAS personnel made use of the Royal Navy's outdoor centre in Bavaria, where team-building activities including mountain biking, kayaking and climbing were laid on.