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Two weeks playing with French Rafale jets is just the ticket for Culdrose Sea Kings

22 February 2017
The Navy's 'eyes in the sky' hopped the 120 miles from their home near Helston to Landivisiau, home of the French Navy's carrier strike jets, to share Breton skies with Rafale strike fighters, practising skills which will be crucial when HMS Queen Elizabeth and her F-35 jump jets enter service.

849 Naval Air Squadron sent two Sea King Mk7s across the Channel for Exercise Skinner's Gold, only for one to develop a serious gear box oil leak - luckily within sight of the French coast.

The crew set it down on the outskirts of Brignogan-Plages, 20 miles northeast of Brest and a dozen from its destination, slap bang in a field where holidaymakers are warned not to camp.

Far from admonishing the fliers, locals - led by the mayor - were quickly on the scene, offering the crew food and drink, before French commandos guarded the site overnight while spare parts were flown over from Culdrose. 849's engineers had the helicopter fixed and ready to take her place in the exercise within 24 hours.

The Baggers serve both as the Navy's airborne early warning against air attack and the long-range eyes helping to direct friendly aircraft on to targets, be they enemy fighters or armour and troop concentrations on the ground - so powerful is the radar and the software fitted aboard the veteran helicopter it's equally adept looking up or down.

It's an ability the Sea Kings will shortly pass on to the new Crowsnest Merlin and any opportunity to practise is avidly seized, especially as the French pilots have just returned from a front-line deployment, flying from the deck of their nation's flagship and attacking ISIS targets in the Middle East.

For us, this was a rare opportunity for the Royal Navy's only airborne fighter controllers to work with maritime fourth-generation fighters

Lieutenant Ben Selwood, Observer 849 Naval Air Squadron

"Their pilots and crews were able to impart invaluable knowledge about live CSG operations and current tactics. With the Queen Elizabeth and F-35 Lightning now looming large on the horizon, these are vital preparations for the Royal Navy," explained observer Lt Ben Selwood.

"For us, this was a rare opportunity for the Royal Navy's only airborne fighter controllers to work with maritime fourth-generation fighters."

The first week gave the crews the chance to control many different tactical scenarios including air interdiction - guiding friendly fighters on to enemy fighters - and 'air policing', maintaining no-fly zones as British jets did over southern Iraq in the 1990s, for example.

Thanks to a data link, the Sea King crews were able to provide fighter pilots with all the information they needed about what was happening in the sky, on land and on the sea - giving them the upper hand when they entered the fight.

The second week of Skinner's Gold was rather hampered by mist and weather, but still allowed the helicopter squadron's most junior observers, Lieutenants James Clark and Ben Selwood - the very last trainees in a Sea King family stretching back to 1969 - to complete their personal instruction. They're now fully-qualified Airborne Surveillance and Control observers.

"What a great chance to come to France and train with some of our closest allies. The opportunity to hone my fighter control skills with such advanced aircraft was incredibly challenging but also very rewarding," said Lieutenant Clark.

"I'm extremely proud to have completed my training as a fully-qualified observer. These are great times."

For the entire Sea King force, the fortnight in France provided invaluable training, preparing them for current operations - there's a permanent detachment of Baggers monitoring Gulf skies - but with one eye firmly on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and the arrival of Crowsnest in two years' time.

849 will return to Landivisiau in June for NATO's Tiger Meet, with more than 50 fast jets from 20 different Allied nations converging on Brittany for major aerial war games.

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