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The Year of the Royal Navy’s Flying Tigers

20 January 2023
As the Year of the Tiger draws to a close, the Royal Navy’s own ‘Flying Tigers’ reflect on one of their most demanding stretches of operations in recent memory.

The zodiac Year of the Rabbit begins this Sunday with the Chinese New Year and it’s apt that the Flying Tigers of 814 Naval Air Squadron are taking stock after a non-stop schedule of operations, exercises and training.

The squadron of Merlin helicopters, based at RNAS Culdrose, flexed their submarine hunting muscles from the Barents Sea to the shadow of Mount Etna and birthplace of aviation.

The Flying Tigers (200 pilots, observers, aircrew personnel, engineers, technicians, survival equipment experts and logisticians) regard ‘their’ year as among their most demanding – and successful – in recent memory, being pushed to the limit yet proving their effectiveness against challenging ‘foes’ in varied environments alongside numerous allies.

The fliers clocked up an average of five hours a day in the skies – more than 1,800 hours or 75 whole days – watching, listening and observing activity on and beneath the waves. 

“The Year of the Tiger has – as ever – been a busy but productive one but as it winds down, the Flying Tigers will remain sharpening their claws and preparing for whatever the Year of the Rabbit has to offer,” said pilot Lieutenant Dominic Raeyen.

It ended as it began: hunting the enemy below, joining frigate HMS Northumberland and the Norwegians in the High North.

The Devonport-based warship and her Merlin flight headed a task group including tanker RFA Tiderace and HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl in their operations in the Barents Sea, conducting freedom of navigation operations and testing their capabilities in unfamiliar waters.

814 Squadron effectively carries out all front-line submarine-hunting duties not associated with protecting the UK’s two carrier task groups.

That means either operating from land bases – in the UK or overseas when required – or the flight deck of a Type 23 frigate or RFA support ship, with three flights (comprising one Merlin Mk2 plus around a dozen air and ground crew) available: Mohawk, Tungsten, and Kingfisher for the warships; Swordfish, Barracuda and Avenger for the auxiliaries.

Conditions in the Barents Sea – air/water temperature, sea states, wind, water salinity and layers – are very different from the Mediterranean, where the Year of the Tiger began.

A large detachment from the squadron travelled to Maristaeli Air Base in Sicily for NATO’s annual Med-based anti-submarine warfare exercise Dynamic Manta 22 (three dozen ships and aircraft from 22 nations, four boats to hunt down over two weeks in the Ionian Sea).

At the same time, both Tungsten and Mohawk Flights were deployed with HMS Northumberland and Portland respectively.

The former forged a close-knit team on patrols in UK territorial waters and the North Atlantic, the latter headed for the eastern seaboard of the United States, participating in exercises with the US and other NATO allies to hone their anti-submarine warfare skillset in less familiar and challenging conditions off Virginia, Georgia, Carolina and Florida.

Aside from sea time, HMS Gannet at Prestwick Airport near Ayr – long-time home of Navy search-and-rescue operations in Scotland – has become a key ‘forward base’ for the squadron whenever it is training or operating north of the border, allowing small teams of aircrew and engineers to deploy at short notice to areas where they may need to embark in ships, or to safeguard sensitive home waters.

The heavy commitment of the Flying Tigers has meant a string of aircrew passed significant milestones in the cockpit – 1,000, 2,000 hours flying… all the way up to Qualified Observer Instructor Lieutenant Commander Steve ‘Hosey’ Hayton and 4,000 hours airborne – the equivalent of over six months in the air non-stop.

The squadron somehow found time to: commit aircraft (two) and personnel to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee flypast… and three months later it provided sailors for her funeral procession in the capital; pluck a French sailor out of the Channel after his boat capsized; re-train air engineers as ambulance drivers to help the NHS as part of military support during the Covid pandemic; and enjoy tea with real tigers (of the roar variety) at the squadron’s affiliate, Paignton Zoo; and help HMS Seahawk clinch victory in the Brickwoods Field Gun run at Collingwood.

The Year of the Tiger brought 814 two awards: the Breitling Trophy for best overall assessment by Naval Flying Standards Flight, and the Rolls-Royce Engineering Efficiency Trophy.

 “I am incredibly proud of the professionalism, and constantly humbled by the dedication, of our Squadron personnel,” said 814’s Commanding Officer Commander Amy Gaunt.

“These awards demonstrate that their hard work is valued and recognised at the highest levels of the Service.”   

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