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Wildcat crews earn their Wings with 'war' off Portugal

Wildcat crews earn their Wings
Wildcat fliers and engineers of tomorrow spent three weeks off the Portuguese coast waging an all-out imaginary war.

With aviation training ship RFA Argus as their home, the pilots and observers were charged with protecting the 28,000-tonne vessel from all threats - and thus earn their wings with 825 Naval Air Squadron.

By the time the student aircrew joined Argus they'd completed basic flying training in Lincolnshire, then basic helicopter flight training for pilots in Shropshire and observer training at Culdrose, before learning how to fly and operate the Wildcat and its panoply of weapons and sensors at RNAS Yeovilton.

For the final assessment - the culmination of upwards of four years of training - tutors took four Wildcats, five pairs of students several dozen ground crew - many of them fresh out of training at HMS Sultan - to sea.

There they faced a complex series of realistic scenarios in open waters about 100 miles off Portugal… or the hostile nation of Torpluga as it became for the three weeks of training.

This is the PWO in the Ops room with a SitRep: the Torplugans have just sunk HMS Arygll in an unprovoked attack, Surface Threat Warning Red, Sub Surface Threat Warning Red, Wildcats to Alert 15, OPFOR units closing Mother.

For those of you who don't speak PWO - Principal Warfare Officer - OPposing FORces are approaching RFA Argus on and below the water.

And so begins 12 hours of sitting in a sweaty 'goon bag' (the cumbersome IPG Immersion Coveralls) for the trainees as the wait for the call: “Action Wildcat, Action Wildcat.”

We flew more than 160 hours in just under three weeks with 100 per cent availability of the aircraft, I am extremely proud to have been the detachment air engineer officer

Lieutenant Dan Boardman, the detachment's air engineer officer

The pairs of students launch with just 15 minutes' notice into rapidly-changing tactical environments - whilst the pilots are flashing up the Wildcat's two LH Tech T800 engines, the observers are rapidly plotting the tactical picture and configuring the aircraft's extensive sensor suite - including the Sea Spray 7400E Radar and Electro Optical Designator System (a very powerful day and night camera).

Once ready, the lashings are removed and the aircraft leaps into the air.

On a typical sortie - operating 100 nautical miles (115 miles) from mother, with a radar horizon of a further 100 nautical miles - student crews will search more than 8,000 square miles of sea… which is the size of Wales… for contacts as small as a fishing smack.

Once the target has been found, the students decide if they will engage it themselves with a simulated Sea Venom attack (the Wildcat's air-to-surface missile, successor to Sea Skua, but not due in service until the beginning of the next decade) or relay the position back to a friendly frigate or destroyer for an over-the-horizon attack with Harpoon missiles.

The students have been trained in submarine hunting and had to be prepared to conduct simulated Stingray torpedo attacks or to call in Naval Gunfire Support for land targets.

In fact, on any given sortie, students may be asked to conduct anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, search and rescue, naval gunfire support, smuggling interdiction involving firing the M3M gun, load lifting, providing force protection, intelligence gathering, transporting troops/personnel, and much more (though not necessarily on the same flight…).

And by day and night in Argus' cavernous hangar engineers and avionics technicians toiled to ensure the helicopters were available for their next mission.

The detachment's air engineer officer Lieutenant Dan Boardman said experienced or rookie, his team had risen to the challenge of maintaining four state-of-the-art helicopters around the clock for three weeks.

"This embarkation has been a great training opportunity for the whole squadron," he said. "We flew more than 160 hours in just under three weeks with 100 per cent availability of the aircraft, I am extremely proud to have been the detachment air engineer officer- it's been a real highlight of my career so far."

With the Torplugan fleet defeated, Argus sailed into Lisbon (or should that be Nobsil?) for some rest and a run-ashore for the successful pilots and observers, all of whom earned their wings.

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