Royal Navy fliers are ready to fly from – and safeguard – Britain’s biggest warship when HMS Queen Elizabeth goes to sea.
The Merlin helicopters of 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) have completed a major fortnight-long exercise off the north and west coasts of Scotland aimed at preparing them to join the future flagship later this year.
The Culdrose-based helicopters will be the first to fly on and off the 65,000-tonne new aircraft carrier during sea trials in the North Sea.
And it will be the long-standing duty of 820 Squadron – known as the Flying Fish – to protect the leviathan from any submarine which might threaten her.
To get used to the environment and conditions they might face, three Merlin Mk2 helicopters and the bulk of 820 Squadron decamped to RAF Lossiemouth for Exercise March Hare.
820 dispatched three of its helicopters to the former Fleet Air Arm station, now home to three Typhoon squadrons.
March Hare was split into two phases: the first week at Lossiemouth, the second in the more regular surroundings of HMS Gannet in Prestwick on the west coast; although Search and Rescue duties have ended, the base lives on as a forward base for RN helicopters when they operate north of the border.
The fliers used the first week to get to know the waters, shores and terrain of the Moray Firth and northern foothills of the Grampians and carried out Search and Rescue training with the RNLI’s Buckie lifeboat crew and the rescuers of the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation.
On the west coast, flying took a tactical ‘edge’ involving Naval assets on, under and over the sea, with the Merlins up against would-be submarine commanders undergoing the Royal Navy’s demanding Submarine Command Course – better known as Perisher.
It allowed 820 NAS to exercise the ‘ripple’ technique – ensuring one Merlin Mk2 is always at the ‘scene of action’, hunting a submarine, while other Merlins are on their way out to, or back from, pinging, or on being refuelled back at base.
“Anti-submarine warfare when a Merlin Mk2 is involved isn’t so much a game of cat and mouse, more like mousetrap,” said observer Lieutenant Dominic Rotherham.
“Once you understand what it is the submariner is trying to achieve and the underwater battlespace he has to work with, the likely location of the submarine starts to become clear.
“It’s at that point that you begin to shape that battlespace to how you want the fight to unfold.
Dominic continues: “Honestly, when you land after an exercise having given the submarine a really bad day, there’s nothing more satisfying.”
March Hare also tested the squadron’s logistical legs, operating 700 miles from the squadron’s usual base; the ground team took five truckloads of equipment to Scotland – the road journey to Lossiemouth took 18 hours.
The combined experience of March Hare and deploying two Merlins on helicopter assault ship HMS Ocean for the past six months in the Mediterranean and Middle East prepares 820 for the challenges ahead ‘in any environment, embarked at sea or deployed on land anywhere in the world,’ in the words of the squadron’s Commanding Officer Commander Jon Holroyd: “Our imminent tasking may well be in support of the Navy’s new carrier, but my men and women haven’t merely provided what was tasked – they have gone above and beyond; serving with aplomb and good humour, in the way they have always delivered, ostensibly giving their all to achieve the seemingly impossible. I am immensely proud of my team and what they have accomplished.”