Getting their sea legs back after more than a decade mostly over the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan are the helicopters of the Commando Helicopter Force.
Fliers and ground crew of 845 Naval Air Squadron – which flies Royal Marines and their kit into battle – say their short stint with the Navy’s amphibious task group in the Mediterranean will help pave the way for future operations.
While their comrades of 846 Squadron were ‘playing’ in the Alpine foothills of southern Bavaria to master the art of mountain flying, their sister Commando Helicopter Force squadron despatched two Merlins to flagship HMS Ocean
The detachment took a standard Mk3 and an enhanced iMk3 featuring numerous enhancements which make it better suited to operations at sea, not least a folding rotor head – which takes up less space, allowing more room for other helicopters.
“The folding Merlin is a familiar to the Navy but which was totally unfamiliar to CHF in the Merlin era,” explained Lt Cdr Joe Stevens 845 NAS’s Air Engineer Officer
“This means that although the engineers had to learn to operate the system at sea, the service that was then provided to the ship was much improved, as we could embark two aircraft.”
It’s the second time in under six months that the squadron has spent an extended period at sea, having taken part in NATO’s Baltops exercise in the Baltic in the spring.
For Albanian Lion, the Merlins were expected to provide consistent support for the Royal Marines on the ground, flying them around the Adriatic, lifting guns, carrying supplies and also flying VIPs in to watch the final exercise, which also demanded the helicopters lift the 105mm field guns into position.
The helicopters, normally based at CHF HQ in Yeovilton, clocked up 45 hours in Mediterranean skies, completing 150 deck landings by day and night, shifting ten tonnes of kit and ferrying nearly 200 personnel into action, reaching its climax in the closing assault of the exercise, when troops and quadbikes were flown far behind enemy lines.
And equally important, the aircrews clocked up a lot of night flying which means they are just as able to carry out amphibious operations in the dark as they are in the daytime.
“This new skillset that we have developed with the Merlin allows 845 Squadron NAS to fully support the amphibious task group – and the RN worldwide – by day, or night in any weather, from the deck of HMS Ocean,” said Lt Cdr Tom Burrows, the squadron’s operations officer.
“Overall I feel that the squadron integrated with the ship well, and in the end 42 Commando really appreciated the support we gave them throughout.”