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Merlin fliers earn their wings with week long Devon exercise

Merlin fliers earn their wings with week-long Devon exercise
29 November 2017
Eight naval aviators will receive their coveted wings on Friday – allowing them to fly Royal Marines into battle after a year of intensive training.

Four trainee pilots and four rookie aircrewmen are now qualified to fly the battlefield Merlin on front-line duties wherever the Royal Marines go.

The wings parade at 846 Naval Air Squadron brings the curtain down on 11 months of training – the bulk of it in the field.

All 15 students on 27 Operational Conversion Course passed – seven were converting to the new Merlin from the retired Sea Kings flown by the Commando Helicopter Force until March last year, so they already have their wings.

Despite enhancements and improvements over the years, the Sea King was ’50s/’60s technology. Merlin is bang-up-to-date with an entirely computerised ‘glass cockpit’ – no analogue dials, switches and knobs. It’s also bigger, faster, stronger and has longer legs than its predecessor.

The 15 students began the year at RAF Benson – the battlefield Merlins were originally flown by the Air Force until they were transferred to the Fleet Air Arm.

The Merlin simulators remain in Oxfordshire, so students spend five weeks learning about the new helicopter in the classroom, then spend a couple of months ‘flying’ basic and advanced sorties in the sim.

After that, training moves to the real thing: an 11-tonne beast which powers through the skies at speeds upwards of 170mph, carrying more than a dozen Royal Marines in full battle gear perhaps hundreds of miles from their launch point.

Crews must be able to set down in tight spots, carry heavy loads such as 105mm field guns, supplies, BV or Viking tracked vehicles, and Land Rovers – where the aircrewmen come into their own in guiding the two pilots in the cockpit.

The helicopters must be able to go wherever the Royal Marines go, such as the mountainous Arctic terrain of northern Norway, so the students decamped to Scandinavia for a week – a trip which also tested their endurance, navigation and diplomatic/language skills.

After Norway came Scotland and the ranges at Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway to practise weaponry – the aircrewmen man machine-guns when necessary, and got down plenty of lead on the ranges during four days of live shoots by day and night.

No commando flier can earn their spurs without going to sea – the ability to ferry Royal Marines into action from a warship by helicopter played a key role in Iraq in 2003 in particular.

Training ship RFA Argus is used to give the aviators a taste of life at sea and the challenges of operating from a pitching, rolling, yawing flight deck in all weathers.

All that the students have learned over ten months in classrooms, simulators, mountains and ranges is tested to the limit with the course’s climax, a ‘MILEX’ – military exercise – making use of the huge Commando Logistics Regiment base at Chivenor in North Devon.

The week-long exercise was played out over Dartmoor and the Devonshire coast, made use of green berets from 42 Commando at Bickleigh, commando assault ship HMS Albion undergoing her own operational training off Plymouth, the gunners of 29 Commando Regiment RA, whose 105mm guns took to the skies – as did Land Rovers and trailers.

Aircrews operated in unforgiving conditions on Dartmoor, kicked up blizzards of sand as they touched down and lifted off from beaches around Plymouth, and practised recovering comrades from the Channel in a mock rescue before Merlin Storm concluded.

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