On a very wet day in Somerset, the first of seven next-generation Merlins which will carry Royal Marines into battle arrives at its new home.
This is Merlin iMk3 – ‘i’ for interim – better suited to supporting the green berets on amphibious operations than the ‘basic’ Mk3.
The Merlin is taking over from the venerable Sea King as the workhorse of the Commando Helicopter Force.
A big step forward from its predecessor (it’s 30 years more modern), battlefield Merlin Mk3 – which has been transferred to the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF – prefers operations over land than sea, whereas the Royal Marines operate in both environments.
The iMk3 plugs the gap between the Sea King bowing out of service at the end of March and the arrival of the ‘fully marinised’ Merlin Mk4 in late 2017, when the first of 25 fourth-generation helicopters join the force at their base in Yeovilton.
The interim model features a folding main rotor head, strengthened undercarriage and communications upgrades – but outwardly looks pretty much the same as a normal Mk3.
The Mk4 goes further – enhanced avionics suite, automatic folding main rotor head and folding tail, making it perfect for operations at sea.
For the time being, however, the iMk3, delivered by the Merlin’s constructor AgustaWestland in Yeovil, fills the Sea King’s boots quite nicely.
“Today marks another key milestone in the history of the Commando Helicopter Force.
"With more iMk3s due to arrive soon, we’ll be well on our way to delivering real capability to our primary customer – the Royal Marines,” said Lt Cdr Ben McGreal, 846 Naval Air Squadron’s Merlin Flight Commander.
“It’s also not often that you can say that you’re the first to fly a new type of aircraft in the Royal Navy, so today is a very special day.”