Tiger-themed squadrons from across Europe – including the Flying Tigers from RNAS Culdrose – converged on southern France for a two-week workout over land and sea to test the ability of 18 different aircraft types from 13 nations to fight side-by-side.
The submarine hunters of 814 Naval Air Squadron clocked up more than 40 hours in French skies at Tiger Meet 2019 as fighters, bombers, helicopters jostled for air supremacy on numerous missions from working with a French frigate to hunt down enemy warships to supporting an airborne assault in the Pyrenees mountains.
Since 1961, any NATO squadron which features the head of a tiger in its crest has been invited to a ‘Tiger meet’, this year hosted by the French Air Force’s Escadron de Chasse 3/30 Lorraine (EC 3/30) at Base Aerienne 118 Mont-De-Marsan, 80 miles south of Bordeaux.
“Tiger Meet was the most challenging and rewarding flying I have done to date. The exercise has given me the opportunity to see just how capable and multi-role the aircraft can be at an early stage in my flying career,” said Lieutenant Jay Butler RN.
Many participants adorn their aircraft with impressive Tiger art (due to the special composite material Merlins are made of, sadly, the most 814 are allowed is the black outline of a tiger’s face on the nose). Most have some form of Tiger mascot (in the form of a cuddly toy).
Such light-hearted moments aside, the fortnight-long exercise is serious business; so complex are many of the different scenarios played out that planners spend more than a year designing them.
The bulk of Tiger squadrons are fast jet units – F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets, French Rafales and Mirages, Eurofighter Typhoons – but there were also nine helicopters and a giant E-3 Sentry ‘eyes-in-the-sky’ involved in the 2019 meeting.
For the duration of the exercise, the Merlin was on standby as the duty rescue helicopter should any fellow Tigers suffer a mishap (they didn’t).
In addition, the Fleet Air Arm fliers were called to feed intelligence to their comrades, command and control – a sort of flying air traffic control centre – ferrying troops and equipment around the large exercise area. The Merlin’s engineering detachment ensured the helicopter never missed one of its 19 allocated sorties.
“This was my second NATO Tiger Meet and one of the most valuable experiences of my Royal Naval career,” pilot Lieutenant Tom Wallis enthused.
“It was hard work but I have again learnt a lot from working with other NATO squadrons. I was mission commander for one exercise which saw me commanding nine helicopters to deliver troops to the Pyrenees.
“We had to take on real jets simulating an air-to-air threat and real surface-to-air missile system simulating a ground-to-air threat.”
814’s Senior Observer – navigator/sensor/weapons specialist – Lieutenant Commander Tony Sherwin was attending his first Tiger Meet and found the experience invaluable.
"This was my first NATO Tiger Meet. It proved to be long hours and hard graft but everybody pulled together and we really demonstrated how capable the Merlin Mk2 is in the hands of 814’s Flying Tigers.”
Newly-qualified observer Lieutenant Jay Butler added: “Tiger Meet was the most challenging and rewarding flying I have done to date. The exercise has given me the opportunity to see just how capable and multi-role the aircraft can be at an early stage in my flying career.
“On one sortie there were over 40 jets airborne either trying to shoot us down or trying to protect us and I was in command of completing the mission safely.”
The detachment is now back home in Culdrose, but 814 are already planning their participation in 2020’s Tiger Meet which will take place in southern Portugal.