Naval aviators say the best is yet to come from their principal heavy-duty helicopter after it clocked up 200,000 flying hours – safeguarding ships and submarines and ferrying troops into battle.
In four different versions – chiefly split between maritime patrol/submarine hunter and battlefield support – the Merlin fleet has flown the equivalent of 1,190 weeks or just shy of 23 years in the hands of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF.
The Fleet Air Arm got its hands on the first version of the helicopter in 1997, brought it into the service three years later and have been operating it ever since from frigates, carriers and assault ships, using the Merlin for everything from moving people and kit around and rescue missions to the painstaking task of submarine hunting – usually hand-in-hand with a Type 23 frigate.
And since 2014, naval air and ground crew have been turning the RAF’s battlefield Merlins into Commando Helicopter Force Merlins, replacing the trusty Sea King as the wings of the Royal Marines.
That conversion process is still under way with the fleet of RAF helicopters (Mk3) being turned into ones specially adapted for operations at sea (such as a folding tail) as the Mk4, taking up just one third the space of the model it replaces.
It also ditches the long-standing distinctive battlefield green livery for the standard maritime grey.
With the RAF, Merlin served extensively in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond exercises, it’s yet to go into action with the commandos – but will mainly fly from RN assault ships or carriers before moving to forward bases ashore.
The commando aviators have also been given two new missions with the rebirth of fast-jet operations from the carriers: rescuing downed aircrew from behind enemy lines and, in a similar vein, plucking fliers who’ve ditched or ejected from an F-35 Lightning jet and ended up in the drink.
Pilots also like it because it’s the safest helicopter in Fleet Air Arm service: it’s powered by three engines, is equipped with flotation gear, has crash-worthy seats and is designed to ‘crumple’ in the event of a heavy landing, allowing crew and passengers to simply ‘step out’ of the wreckage.
When it’s simply travelling from A to B, thanks to the navigational systems on board, Merlin flies just like a commercial airliner.
“It's a battlefield helicopter pilot's dream to be able to fly such an awesome and cutting-edge machine,” said Lieutenant Tom Lennon of 845 Naval Air Squadron.
“Commando Merlin is a game-changer for the Commando Helicopter Force. As front-line aircrew, our ability to operate and interact with the aircraft has vastly increased thanks to major cockpit and avionic upgrades.
“This epic aircraft's immense capability means we can not only take the fight directly to the enemy, but provide a life-saving combat rescue capability in his own back yard.”
It’ll be next year before all Mk4s are in service with the Yeovilton-based force. When all are delivered it will mark the end of a decade-long transformation of air support for the Royal Marines.
“The Commando Helicopter Force is back on the map with Commando Merlin. It’s one of the finest helicopters in defence: versatile, incredible speed, endurance – at least five hours, which is high for a helicopter, but more with extra fuel tanks – and range,” said Commander Bob Bond, 845 NAS’ Commanding Officer, whose men, women and machines are currently honing Arctic warfare skills.
“It’s the helicopter of choice for the Royal Marines. Commando aviation is back!"
The maritime Merlin force based entirely at Culdrose (‘super squadron’ 814 NAS supporting frigates and anyone else in need of a sub-hunting Merlin; 820 NAS which shields HMS Queen Elizabeth from the prying eyes of hostile boats; and training unit 824 NAS) is also geared up for change.
As well as the duties it has performed for the past two decades, later this year the Culdrose-based Merlin assumes responsibilities as the navy’s “eyes in the sky.”
The helicopter takes over from the Sea Kings which retired last year with the new Crowsnest modification – a hi-tech radar in a large black ‘sack’ which can be fitted to the Mk2.
It cannot merely track incoming aircraft which might threaten the Queen Elizabeth battle group, but also be used to direct the F-35 Lightnings to intercept… or track and guide the stealth fighters to targets on the ground.
Commander Jim Hall, in charge of the Maritime Merlin Force – known as Commander M – says the helicopter is “on the right path” to support Royal Navy operations into the next decade.
“Merlin has proven its reliability and flexibility in the journey to this 200,000 hours milestone. It’s played an integral role in the protection of the nation’s strategic deterrent – and will continue to do so – and with Crowsnest will enhance the current anti-submarine warfare role in defending the nation’s aircraft carriers,” he added.
At present the maritime Merlin fleet has at least a decade to run until retired, while the commando variant is planned to bow out in 2030.