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Navy's eyes in the sky celebrate 65 years on watch

25 October 2017
Men and women who've scoured the skies looking for the Navy's foes gathered in Culdrose to celebrate 65 years on alert.

Since 1952, the pilots, observers and aircrew of 849 Naval Air Squadron have stared at cathode ray tubes and, more recently, computer displays for the glimpse of an enemy missile or aircraft approaching a Royal Navy task group.

Every five years the airborne early warning community - AEW or, in modern military jargon ANYFACE - gather at the spiritual home of the specialist branch of naval aviation.

Guest of honour for the sapphire jubilee of ANYFACE was Lt Cdr Peter Hiles - senior pilot of 849 back in 1952 when the squadron began its long association with airborne early warning.

Veterans were invited to inspect the Sea King Mk7 - the very last variant of the trusty helicopter still flying with the RN

Back then he was flying the Douglas Skyraider, a rather chunky American-built propeller-driven aircraft which was used during the brief Suez conflict.

It was replaced by the equally ungainly Gannet from the 1960s until the demise of HMS Ark Royal IV in 1978.

There followed a four-year gap - which left the Fleet largely blind to longer-range threats, a decision which it paid for in the Falklands, chiefly with the loss of HMS Sheffield and the merchantman Atlantic Conveyor, both destroyed by Exocet missiles.

Within weeks, two Sea Kings have been converted into makeshift AEW helicopters - formalised in 1984 with the re-forming of 849 NAS again.

Since then, the chain has been unbroken, although since 2001/02 the aircraft have expanded their mission to Airborne Surveillance and Control.

Their upgraded radar/software suite allows aircrew not merely to track airborne targets - to avoid/evade or guide friendly air power in for the kill - but follow the movements of vehicles on land, as the 'SKASaC' - pronounced 'skay sac' - did extensively over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans were invited to inspect the Sea King Mk7 - the very last variant of the trusty helicopter still flying with the RN after 48 years' - and see it in action with its trademark black sack or 'bag' deployed during a weekend of events at the Helston air base.

It's the last time many of the guests will see a Sea King Bagger; it will retire next year in favour of a Merlin with a large radar dome, Crowsnest, which will act as the all-seeing eyes of the HMS Queen Elizabeth/Prince of Wales carrier battle groups.

Lt Cdr Hiles presented ten members of today's 849 NAS with Long Service and Good Conduct, while HMS Seahawk's Volunteer Band and the Culdrose Military Wives Choir provided the musical accompaniment.

The weekend concluded with a wardroom mess dinner, where Lt Cdr Hiles and Cdre Matt Briers - the most senior former 849 NAS member in today's RN - recounted tales of airborne early warning missions nearly half a century apart.

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