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X-periment by commando fliers vastly improves helicopter availability for Royal Marine ops

10 August 2022
Navy air engineers cut through red tape and embraced tech to improve the availability of front-line helicopters for the Royal Marines by one third.

For a month a team at 845 Naval Air Squadron, whose Merlin helicopters carry Royal Marines and their kit into action from the Arctic to the jungle or desert, ditched old school paper and form-filling practices to see whether going digital – including harnessing Virtual and Augmented Reality – could make them better, faster, more effective engineers.

It did. The four-week dry run led to getting twice as much use out of the helicopters, while increasing their availability by 30 per cent.

The team behind 845 Squadron’s B Flight – three Merlin Mk4 helicopters, maintained by a team of around 50 engineers and technicians – transformed into X Flight (X for eXperimentation).

Engineers drew upon their years of maintaining and servicing cutting-edge helicopters cut through red tape and harness apps, digital accounting, plus virtual and augmented reality.

Using fully-digital recording tools and web-based technical documentation cut supervisors’ administration time in half – a lesson which could be shared by everyone involved in military aviation engineering.

The team tried out an automatic toolbox which digitised the tool accounting process – a crucial and, currently, burdensome task) which reduced the workload by up to 75 per cent.

As well as challenging engineering processes, X Flight trialled modern engineering aids which are routinely available on a mobile phone, but have not to date made major inroads into the aviation maintenance world.

The outcomes of the technicians’ efforts speak for themselves with a 30 per cent increase in operational serviceability and a doubling of aircraft utilisation when compared to current practice.

Commander Daniel Weil

Junior technicians trained on – and then exploited – Augmented Reality to enhance the servicing and maintenance experience, and tested satellite communication solutions to improve links with the squadron when they need engineering support out in the field.

And although Virtual Reality (VR) and the use of 3D models is routinely available for flying training, it hadn’t been introduced into the engineering world yet.

845’s parent unit, Commando Helicopter Force, set up a VR hub using an existing, under-used 3D model to practise training away from a live Merlin and assess the engineers’ performance.

Both proved fruitful so CHF is now looking at establishing a more permanent VR engineering facility - and the Force is looking at using Augmented Reality on this autumn's amphibious and carrier strike group deployment.

“X Flight was a real success,” said Commander Daniel Weil, Commander Air Engineering for the Commando Helicopter Force. “It demonstrated how workforce-led experimentation can challenge the norm and improve outputs.

“The outcomes of the technicians’ efforts speak for themselves with a 30 per cent increase in operational serviceability and a doubling of aircraft utilisation when compared to current practice.”

The lessons and results of the X-Flight are now being studied in greater detail by the team at Yeovilton to see what can become regular working practices in CHF, and potentially across the Fleet Air Arm, RAF and Army Air Corps.

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