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Royal Navy pilot shares experience on US Coast Guard exchange programme

Landing on HMS Prince of Wales
15 February 2024
A trailblazing Royal Navy pilot says embracing opportunities throughout his career led him to his current unique exchange - flying with the United States Coast Guard.

Lieutenant Commander Bob Fleming is the first Royal Navy pilot to serve with the Helicopter Interdiction Squadron (HITRON) – at the forefront of the US’s war on drugs.

Known affectively by his US hosts as ‘British Bob’, he has spent the past 21 months in the States flying MH-65E Dolphin helicopters.

He was invited as a guest on podcast Flight Suit Friday (hosted by a group of US Coast Guard aviators) and outlined the main difference between the Wildcats he flies for 815 Naval Air Squadron compared with the Dolphin - and how he has found adapting to American flight safety, standards and protocols.

“I had this very good instructor when I was learning and he said the day you stop learning about aviation, is the day you give up completely.

“I am always learning new things, new ways of doing stuff and I learned to fight for the fun opportunities.

“I see people who are scared to put their neck out but they will regret not volunteering for it – for something different or something exciting. Fight for the opportunities, embrace them because you never know where they’re going to lead.

“Take advantage of them because you don’t get them in a normal career. I did and they have led me here. I am flying for the USCG and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

“On a morning, I walk out to a USCG helicopter and I cannot stop smiling, it’s brilliant.”

Lt Cdr Fleming joined the Royal Navy in 2002 after flying in the Royal Air Force Reserves for five years. He became a navy pilot in 2003, starting off in a Lynx, progressing to the current Wildcat when it retired.

Although he has been involved in some search and rescue operations, the Royal Navy stopped providing the service in 2015. So his time with the US Coast Guard has been a step change in his normal operations in a Wildcat, which range from anti-surface warfare to counter-narcotics.

On a morning, I walk out to a USCG helicopter and I cannot stop smiling, it’s brilliant

Lieutenant Commander Bob Fleming

He also revealed a difference between the two services is the Wildcat only having one pilot – much to the shock of the hosts.

“One of the main differences is we’re single pilot,” he said.

“In the front-line aircraft there’s only one set of controls so when you’re the pilot, you are the pilot. There’s no one else to hand control over to.”

He also said the rules and regulations of United States airspace proved the most difficult challenge to overcome.

“Flying is flying so learning to fly a new type of helicopter hasn’t been too bad,” Lt Cdr Fleming added.

“You line up the numbers and it seems to do its thing so that’s great.

“The airspace and rules and regulation have been the hardest thing. The whole construction of airspace is different, how you label them, how it operates, who you talk to, Coast Guard regulations. How you get around, who you talk to, flight monitoring is different.

“It’s probably due to the fact we have a smaller geography in the UK. We can do things more locally but you’ve got to get massive coverage. Plus, you have way more airports and general aviation. It’s interestingly busy out here.”

During Lt Cdr Fleming’s time with the USCG, he has completed two deployments with the Coast Guard’s cutters, tracking and stopping go-fasts carrying illegal cargo. He has joined a ship in El Salvador for operations in central America and off San Diego.

He also landed on aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales during the ship’s deployment to the east coast of the United States.

And with half of his time with the USCG completed, Lt Cdr Fleming said: “It’s been a lot of hard work to get my mind around everything but I feel pretty comfortable now. “

You can listen to Lt Cdr Fleming talking about his time on exchange in the States on the ‘Flight Suit Friday’ podcast, created by a group of US Coast Guard aviators:

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