Veteran Sea Kings have joined HMS Ocean in the Gulf to practise defending the flagship from threats in the skies.
The work carried out by the helicopters will pave the way for their successors, Crowsnest Merlin, which will serve as the carrier’s ‘flying eyes’.
After years over the sands of Afghanistan – where their radars proved vital in tracking the movements of insurgents on the ground – the Sea Kings of 849 Naval Air Squadron are re-learning the art of working with a carrier task group, led by HMS Ocean.
The helicopter assault ship is currently the flagship of the only carrier group in the Gulf, Combined Task Force 50 – the first time a Royal Navy warship and its staff have taken command of a predominantly US Navy force.
Ocean is three times smaller than HMS Queen Elizabeth – due to begin her sea trials later this year – but the experience of operating at sea, in a challenging environment – even in January temperatures are in the 20s Celsius – in an operational theatre alongside British and Allied warships and aircraft is invaluable.
The Sea Kings were originally designed to provide Royal Navy aircraft carriers airborne early warning of impending threats.
They still do, but the latest variant of the veteran helicopter and its state-of-the-art radar system – contained in the giant black sack, or bag, which gives the Sea Kings their ‘bagger’ nicknames – is equally useful in tracking movements on the ground (hence its success in Afghanistan) or on the surface of the ocean.
Once those threats are identified, the observers operating the computer consoles in the back of the Sea Kings direct Allied air, naval or ground forces to intercept.
Bagger squadron 849 NAS is rotating its three flights – Normandy, Okinawa and Palembang – through the Gulf, taking advantage of RN and RFA vessels operating in the region to get their sea legs back.
With the arrival of Ocean, however, the flights – currently Palembang – can considerably expand the training (benefiting them and the future RN) thanks to Merlin helicopters embarked to protect Ocean’s group from surface and, especially, submarine threats.
The result is that aircrew and task group staff can test the ability of the two different helicopter types to work together to help protect the task force from threats coming from every dimension.
By the time Queen Elizabeth begins operations, the Sea King will have finally retired (after 49 years’ service with the Fleet Air Arm), but the ‘bagger’ function will be taken over by ‘Crowsnest’ – Merlins fitted with a similar radar and sensors which will be indispensable when it comes to F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters conducting targeted strike missions.
That’s in the future. For now, Palembang Flight is glad to be back at sea, giving engineers and technicians the chance to re-learn the art of maintaining helicopters in a warship, aircrew the chance to get used to flying over the featureless ocean instead of featureless desert, and keep Ocean’s flight deck teams busy.
“The sea is our natural environment, and whilst operating there brings many challenges, the equipment and my team have risen to the challenge,” said Palembang Flight Commander Lt Cdr Chris Jones.
“The specialist skills that make us distinct from our Service colleagues are easily lost, so the opportunity to work at sea in a high tempo, real world operation is too good to miss, and I’ve been delighted with how we’ve performed so far.”