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Engineers rewarded for preventing damage to Navy helicopters

1 December 2016
Boffins whose advice helped save the Navy a multi-million pound helicopter repair bill following the Ebola relief mission in Sierra Leone have been rewarded.

The team of specialist engineers, technicians and scientists from 1710 Naval Air Squadron in Portsmouth Naval Base have been named the MOD’s first ‘innovators of the year’ for their work to ensure the state-of-the-art helicopters remained free from disease – and safe to fly.

The Navy dispatched three helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron with support ship RFA Argus in the autumn of 2014 as part of the wider effort by the UK’s Armed Forces to first halt the spread of Ebola, then hopefully eradicate it from Sierra Leone.

Neither the ship nor the helicopters were directly involved in the treatment of sufferers of the disease; Argus acted as a helipad for the Merlins which flew people, medical supplies and kit around the Commonwealth country.

When we tested the three materials that were recommended for aircraft disinfection, every one of them was corrosive and one of the products would have had catastrophic consequences if it had been used.

Andy Dutch

The threat of infection was ever-present during the six-month mission, however.

The team from the corrosion control and husbandry section at 1710 challenged the advice of a major aircraft manufacturer and proved that the disinfectant recommended would have had a potentially catastrophic impact on the Merlins, based at Culdrose in Cornwall.

They carried out a series of tests with experts from the government’s laboratories at DSTL Porton Down in Wiltshire which showed either that the various recommended disinfectants failed to destroy the Ebola virus – or that they killed the disease but also had a corrosive effect on helicopter parts.

“When we tested the three materials that were recommended for aircraft disinfection, every one of them was corrosive and one of the products would have had catastrophic consequences if it had been used,” explained team leader Andy Dutch.

“What we found was that not only would the recommended disinfectants have eaten our aircraft they were very poor at killing Ebola virus as well and could have put personnel at significant risk of infection.

“The recommended disinfectants were relatively pH neutral, but this does not necessarily make them safe for use on aircraft – sea water can be relatively pH neutral but we all know how corrosive that can be.”

Instead, the 1710 experts suggested a strong alkaline cleaner, already used to keep military aircraft clean safely – but never used against diseases.

It was tested on the extremely dangerous ‘live’ Ebola virus at Porton Down – with successful results.

“As expected the alkaline cleaner that we proposed was as good at killing Ebola as household bleach but without any of the damaging effects,” said Andy.

“If it had been proved that the other materials were better at killing Ebola than the one we proposed, then the damaging disinfectant would have been used and the MOD would have had to deal with the costly effects on the aircraft further down the line.

“As it turned out, two of the three disinfectant were well below the acceptable level of disinfection for Ebola, while the other passed but that was the one that would have been catastrophic.”

The citation for the inaugural innovation award, which was presented to the squadron by the Minister for Defence Procurement, Harriet Baldwin, as well as a second award for their acquisition efforts, said 1710’s work on Ebola contamination had contributed “to the global understanding of biological security”.

1710 is a unique unit in the Fleet Air Arm comprising personnel from all three Services, plus civilians.

Their job is to carry out front-line repairs to damaged/broken helicopters, come up with ‘quick fixes’ to problems – they saved the Army upwards of £20m by fitting stretchers to Gazelle helicopters – and monitor fuel quality, corrosion and airframe fatigue.

Commanding Officer Cdr Chris Ling said he was “extremely proud of the squadron’s achievement, and the very clear professionalism and initiative they demonstrate in all that they do.”

The head of the Fleet Air Arm, Rear Admiral Keith Blount, added: “It is wholly fitting that the work of 1710 corrosion control and husbandry section has been singled out for yet further recognition.

The entire squadron is delivering extraordinary outcomes across Defence and beyond but this particular team has excelled in everything that it has achieved.”

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