The front-line Fleet Air Arm helicopter pilots, weapons experts and engineers of tomorrow are spending a month aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in the North Sea to get used to living, working and flying at sea.
The trainees from 824 Naval Air Squadron normally earn their ‘sea legs’ on aviation training ship RFA Argus – very useful, but 40 years old, and with a rather cluttered flight deck which can only accommodate three helicopters simultaneously.
But with the 65,000-tonne new carrier available – she’s conducting her first training in home waters with F-35 Lightning jets embarked off the eastern seaboard of the UK – the Merlin Mk2 fliers from Culdrose are exploiting the Portsmouth-based warship, her cavernous hangar and four-and-a-half-acre flight deck.
The successful pilots, observers (who are the Merlin’s weapons/sub-hunting specialists and navigators) and aircrewmen (sub-hunting specialists/winch operators) will earn their coveted Wings and go on to operate front-line Merlins from either 814 Squadron (performing general sub-hunting/maritime security duties and supplying frigates with helicopters) or 820 Squadron (permanently assigned to the carriers).
Either way, they’ll end up safeguarding Queen Elizabeth or her younger sister HMS Prince of Wales: a Type 23 – or in the future Type 26 – frigate will be assigned to the carrier task group
Students will use all the skills that they have learned so far during their intensive course – giving them real conditions to train in following the many hours of instructions they have already gone through in hi-tech simulators back in Cornwall.
During their time aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, the fliers will complete deck landings/take offs and perfect similarly vital skills essential to operating a state-of-the-art helicopter at sea: ferrying supplies in giant sacks slung beneath the Merlin and refuelling while hovering.
They will take part in simulated attacks posed by surface and underwater threats and learn the art of working safely on a busy flight deck simultaneously with fast jets.
And trainee air engineers and technicians also have their own baptism of fire, learning how to look after a state-of-the-art aircraft in a hangar onboard a pitching, rolling ship.
“Our students are trained to hunt submarines in the Merlin Mk2, and the culmination of this training is to do this by day and night from a ship,” explained Commander Martin Russell, 824 Squadron’s Commanding Officer.
“To conduct that training in HMS Queen Elizabeth is both an excellent opportunity and an honour. The ship's company of the future flagship have been very welcoming – and we have already achieved a good amount of flying."
The Merlins have had the flight deck all to themselves for the past four days; the F-35s from RAF 207 Squadron – flown and maintained by both RN and air force personnel – are due to fly aboard the carrier today from their home at RAF Marham in Norfolk.