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Commando Wildcats sharpen their skills with three-week Scottish workout

A Commando Wildcat prepares to lift off while a second conducts a night firing exercise on the Tain range.jpg
15 October 2021
The wings of the Royal Marines unleashed hellfire and fury in the wilds of Scotland amid their first taste of operating from the Navy’s new carrier.

Three Commando Wildcats of 847 Naval Air Squadron – based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset – decamped to Scotland for training at sea and ashore to hone their unique skills.

The squadron performs a myriad of duties – from acting as the ‘flying eyes’ of Royal Marines on the ground, to providing them with close air support, ferrying of troops and equipment, to calling in air and naval gunfire strikes.

First the aircrew had to get used to safely taking-off from and landing on HMS Prince of Wales’ huge flight deck.

Qualifying/re-qualifying the aircrew fell to training officer Lieutenant Paul Smalley, 847’s only Qualified Helicopter Instructor. “It was challenging to train all the crews for their deck landings: eight day, eight night and eight landings using night vision for each pilot. But with a record number of deck landings achieved in such a short space of time, the whole detachment was trained and ready to fight.”

So what is taking off from Britain’s biggest warship at night like?

“It was dark. That’s the only word that came to mind as I pulled the collective and lifted from HMS Prince of Wales,” said Lieutenant Josh Terry, who’s now qualified for operations at sea. 

Wildcat pilot Captain David Lewis RM added: “The sheer size of the vessel was impressive, but with the help of the ship's company to point us in the right direction the squadron found its feet and got to work.”

Chief Petty Officer Stuart Connell, who was one of the three watch chiefs, oversaw round-the-clock engineering efforts to meet the demanding exercise programme and training schedule.

“The ship was extremely welcoming and supportive, which helped lift morale when things didn’t go to plan,” he said.

With a Commando Wildcat flown from a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, calling in guns from an allied Dutch ship, all choreographed by the task group headquarters aboard HMS Albion, this was 847’s role in Joint Warrior at its finest

Major Chris Eden, CO 847 Naval Air Squadron

847’s Logistics Officer Lieutenant Ben Scott added: “The exercise had many ups and downs which were a huge challenge to deal with. Ensuring the squadron had its aircraft, personnel and engineering support at the right place and time was a very rewarding experience.”

The squadron’s Commanding and Executive Officers – Majors Chris Eden and Rich Moore respectively – were involved in the ‘business end’ of the exercise: bringing fire and fury down on the Scottish ranges, directing the guns of a Dutch warship.

“With a Commando Wildcat flown from a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, calling in guns from an allied Dutch ship, all choreographed by the task group headquarters aboard HMS Albion, this was 847’s role in Joint Warrior at its finest,” said Major Eden.

The storm of steel continued as Joint Warrior ended and 847 remained in Scotland for its biannual live shoot on the ranges near Lossiemouth, Ex Terminal Strike.

The exercise serves to maintain the skills of the UK’s Joint Terminal Aircraft Controllers (JTACs) – personnel from all three Services who are responsible for coordinating firepower from the air.

This involves managing helicopters and fast jets ‘in the stack’ culminating with the sharp end: weapons on target. 847 has two weapons in its arsenal: the 7.62mm GPMG and the .50 Cal M3M.

The shoots received a 100 per cent pass – not just for their marksmanship but also for the safety and ground organisational work of Petty Officer (Aircrewman) Arron Tobin.

Not only can the Commando Wildcat be used for close air support, 847 is the only squadron in the country which is fully operational for Forward Air Controller (Airborne) operations. 

This is where service came into its own. While Captain Tom Arkell RM was down in the weeds in a Commando Wildcat calling in attacks, an RAF Typhoon from Lossiemouth was overhead at 10,000 feet dropping simulated Paveway IV bombs and launching Brimstone missiles.

“It is a true honour to see the realisation of the synergy of joint fires,” said Tom. “Conducting airborne forward air control with a Typhoon is an exhilarating and rewarding experience I’ll always remember.”

Overall the two exercises underscored the utility of the Commando Wildcat to Littoral Strike and the importance of the men and women responsible who make such a variety of missions possible.

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