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Royal Marines’ helicopters complete 1,800-mile epic journey ready for Arctic training

8 February 2022
The wings of the Royal Marines have arrived in the High North ready to support their commando brethren on the ground after an epic five-day journey.

Aircrews spent 20 hours in their aircraft, dodging storms, flying through snow showers and squalls, over forbidding mountainous terrain and contending with temperatures well below zero on the ground and in the air as they covered 1,800 miles from Somerset to deep inside the Arctic Circle.

From their base at Yeovilton, the helicopters hopped via military and civilian airfields across England, Scotland, the North Sea, then up the Norwegian west coast to their final destination at Bardufoss – the hub of Royal Marines’ Arctic training.

Three troop-carrying Merlin helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron and four battlefield Wildcats from 847 NAS are supporting the commandos’ initial winter training, followed by the largest military exercise in Norway in more than 30 years, Cold Response, which begins next month.

Civilians can make the trip from Yeovilton to Bardufoss in a few hours – a drive to Heathrow, then a flight to Oslo and an internal flight on to the destination.

A Merlin averages around 120kts – 138mph – and refuels generally every three to four hours. And hi-tech though the helicopter is, it still demands total concentration at all times, especially when over the mountains of Norway when weather is frequently poor. No cruising at 35,000ft on auto pilot…

“When the weather is poor and visibility reduces, the formation gets closer together to ensure we keep visual with one another as going into cloud in these sub-zero temperatures is not always an option due to the height of the ground around us,” explained pilot Lieutenant Andy Duffield.

“The Arctic is one of the greatest, yet unforgiving, flying environments in the world. Timely decisions are critical to mission success.

“Temperatures inside the cab are absolutely fine ¬– although all doors and windows are firmly shut throughout!”

Over the five days, the route took the Merlin crews from

•       Yeovilton to Lossiemouth (refuelling at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire)
•       Lossiemouth to Sumburgh in Shetland (storms and strong winds stopped the onward flight to Norway)
•       Sumburgh to Bergen (in perfect weather)
•       Bergen to Brønnøysund (refuelling at Ørland near Trondheim, battling squalls and snow showers throughout)
•       and Brønnøysund to Bardufoss (refuelling at Bodø on the edge of the Arctic Circle, in typical ‘Junglie’ weather: low level flights through the fjords, finding gaps in the weather to progress)

 
The Arctic is one of the greatest, yet unforgiving, flying environments in the world. Timely decisions are critical to mission success.

Pilot Lieutenant Andy Duffield

Due to the pandemic, it’s been two years since the squadron last conducted extensive training in the High North.

“The Arctic has offered us little respite from the outset with the inclement weather we’ve experienced,” said Lieutenant Commander Tom Nason, the detachment commander.

“Thankfully, despite these conditions it took little time for both our aircrew and engineers to reacclimatise; lessons have been quickly re-learnt with the ‘old guard’ coming to the fore to guide those experiencing their first taste of this majestic region.”

In each Merlin there were two pilots, two aircrewmen and five engineers to carry out any maintenance needed on the various legs up to Bardufoss.

The engineers’ proved vital in Brønnøysund for fitting protective extreme cold weather covers over the helicopters – not something they do routinely in Norway as there are extensive hangars at Bardufoss.

Among those delighted to see the Merlins at the small coastal airport – it typically only deals with a dozen small commercial flights a day – was security guard Tore ‘TK’ Slettvold Kolltveit who clicked away with his camera.

“What a treat – I was so lucky to be allowed to take some pictures and, as a keen plane spotter and aviation buff, this was just like Christmas Eve,” he said.

With temperatures well below zero and bad weather passing through, the protective covers did their job and ensured snow did not freeze to the airframe/blades.

And with a tight weather window the next day, the covers proved crucial. Removed swiftly, they allowed the Merlins to lift off promptly and reach Bardufoss just ten minutes before the airfield closed – and thus ensured the fliers didn’t have to stop mid-way for another night.

Now acclimatising in Bardufoss, the helicopters will remain in Norway until April working with the Royal Marines, Apaches of the Army Air Corps, the host nation and, from next month, international participants of Exercise Cold Response.

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