By the end of March 2016, the Commando Helicopter Force will have completed its transition from the Sea King H C Mk 4 on to the Merlin. Initially, the CHF are operating a mix of Merlin H C Mk 3/3A helicopters which have been transferred from the RAF. These initial helicopters are to replaced by, seven interim configuration Merlin H C Mk 3i’s with folding rotor heads and additional lashing points to enable the CHF to conduct maritime operations, before they get the fully navalised Merlin H C Mk 4/4A around 2017, as part of a rolling programme which will see more of the upgraded Mk 3i and MK 4’s helicopters delivered to the CHF, the RAF configured H C Mk 3/3A being returned to Westland’s to go through the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme to bring them up to MK 4 standards, which will see the aircraft re-delivered to the Royal Navy with a folding rotor head, folding tail revised undercarriage and a glass cockpit in line with the Merlin H M Mk 2 and Wildcat. The Royal Navy will have received 25 airframes, by 2020. The overall fleet size will be smaller than the Sea King fleet but it is proportionate to the size of the Royal Marines which has also contracted in size and the 25 helicopters will enable the CHF to provide the battlefield lift for Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade and the wider British Army.
In terms of the conversion 846 NAS have now converted on to the Merlin H C Mk 3/3A and they have returned from RAF Benson to Yeovilton the Home of the Commando Helicopter Force and 845 NAS rebadged as 848 NAS at Yeovilton in May 2015 and continued to operate the remaining 8 Sea King H C MK 4 from Yeovilton allowing the CHF to maintain the capability to embark an Amphibious Support Helicopters. 845 NAS stood up at RAF Benson with CHF crews ready to undergo conversion on to the Merlin, they are now destined to return to Yeovilton in June completing the transition process. The Merlin is a larger helicopter than the Sea King can carry more, fly faster and longer and comes with modern avionics and systems and will bring a new dimension to the support that the two Merlin squadrons will be able to provide for the Royal Marines, along with 847 NAS the third squadron of the Commando Helicopter Force which has already transitioned from the legacy Lynx on to the new AgustaWestland Wildcat A H Mk 1.
The Wildcat Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter(BRH), which whilst it might look like its Lynx predecessor is a completely new airframe which flies like a “Lynx on steroids” which will provide the force with a “Seek and Find” ISTAR capability and light transport support. It is currently planned that the two Merlin squadrons will have nine aircraft each plus three undergoing interim maintenance packages with a further three undergoing deep maintenance at RNAS Culdrose.
The Commando Helicopter Force is based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, which itself was officially established in 1997 to consolidate command and control of the various Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines helicopter squadrons supporting 3 Commando Brigade under Flag Officer Naval Aviation. The Force is Fleet Air Arm asset and as such remains under the Command of Commander in Chief Fleet but is under the operational control of Joint Helicopter Command which was established in 1999 to manage the Support helicopters of the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force, and the Army Air Corps, under HQ Land Command,
Helicopter manufacturers Westlands built 42 of these legendary machines at their Yeovil plant which was powered by twin Rolls Royce Gnome turbine with a range of 600 nautical miles and they could fly at 129 mph. The first Sea King H C MK 4 flew on 26 September 1979 and has been operated by two operational squadrons 845 Naval Air Squadron, and 846 Naval Air Squadron with surge deployments with 848 Naval Air Squadron.
The helicopters also equipped the operational training squadron 707 NAS which was subsequently renumbered as 848 NAS and was finally stood down in 2013 when the last Sea King crews joined their operational squadrons. 848 NAS was stood up in its current guise in May 2015.
The Sea King H C Mk 4 has seen operational service in the Falklands, The Balkans, and both the Gulf Wars together with deployments in Iraq, Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The helicopters also formed a key part of Support Helicopter Force (Northern Ireland), providing support for the British Army and the RUC.Prior to 2014, the Sea King H C Mk 4 has been deployed operationally some were around the globe for the last twenty-five years. In 2008 when Lt Cmdr Mario Caretta was CO of 846 NAS when the Sea Kings received an Urgent Operational Requirement upgrade to Sea King H C MK 4+ standards which saw the helicopters fitted with a new five-bladed tail rotor and improved Carson main rotor blades which improved the helicopters hot and high performance, which allowed operations up to 4,000 – 5,000 feet. Lt Cdr Carretta recalls that during a formation flight with a Lynx they asked him to slow down. Lt Cdr Carretta has been flying the Sea King since 1989 and has notched up over 5,000 hours on type from the first Gulf war, through Afghanistan and is right there at the end.
Post Gulf War, Commando Helicopter Force Sea King operations in Iraq ran from 2003 through to 2011 and the two CHF support helicopter squadrons maintained a detachment in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2014 maintaining an operational the detachment flying some 12,500 hours completing 3,800 sorties.
In order to provide support for the Royal Marines means that the CHF Sea King Helicopters have been more or less annually dispatched to Norway for Artic Warfare training since 1979 up until 2014, where the austere cold environment is said to somewhat to match some of the flying conditions in Afghanistan swapping snow for sand and hot for cold. Poor visibility to sand and snow, and an airframe which you will either burn your hand on or stick to it when your skin freezes to the metal of the airframe. One feature of the Arctic Warfare role is the now famous white and green Arctic warfare tiger stripe camouflage a scheme which has been worn with pride by a number of the forces helicopters.
The Sea King MK 4 were augmented by a number of ASW Sea King HAS Mk 6 helicopters which were flown by the operational training squadron, to augment the fleet whilst there Mk 4 helicopters underwent modification work they were converted into transport helicopter by having their radar and sonar equipment removed but retained the flotation sponsons, but had the undercarriage locked down in common with the fixed landing gear of the HC Mk. 4. The last of these H A S MK 6C helicopters which were delivered as sustainment aircraft to allow the CHF to meet its training commitments did not have a defensive aids suite and were not deployed operationally, was retired in 2010.
Captain Niall Griffin MBE, CO of the Commando Helicopter Force told a recent briefing that despite their age they are still able to maintain a relatively high serviceability rate with the squadron, and despite their age the aircraft have around 10,000 hours on each airframe but they are now getting ready for retirement. He was asked at the briefing about the reliability of the aircraft Captain Griffin who has 3,000 hours on type, said that the CHF have not lost a Helicopter on operations apart from the losses in the Falkland’s Campaign, (846 NAS Lost two aircraft in accidents, one was hit by an Albatross and crashed with the loss of 21 lives although nine personnel were rescued, the second was lost in bad weather the pilot was rescued but the crewman was killed and the third aircraft crashed onto the beach at Agua Fresca, Chile. The aircraft was on a covert mission with the SAS and was destroyed by her crew who then surrendered to Chileans) went on to confirm that, a number of the aircraft have received considerable amounts of damage but have able to continue to be able to be flown including the “King of the Junglies” Sea King H C Mk 4, ZA 298, the aircraft has survived being attacked by an Argentinean Sky Hawk during the Falklands and being peppered with bullets in Bosnia and being hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade in Afghanistan making a forced landing and to be recovered by an RAF Chinook to Camp Bastion then being returned to the UK to be repaired at Gosport, and that after she has been retired from service with 848 NAS she will be moved to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton. Capt. Griffin relayed a story about the 848 NAS C O that when he was flying an under slung load into the mountains of Afghanistan that the helicopter took fire and that the airframe was perforated by seven rounds and that it was the case that it would have been easier to list what was still working rather than what was damaged but that the Sea King was able to be flown away to fly away recover to an operating base for it to be repaired and put back in the fight.
The remainder of the fleet will be put up for disposal, three aircraft were offered for sale minus their Rolls-Royce Gnome engines at the end of 2015 by Government disposal contractor Witham Specialist Vehicles. The sales notice indicated that further examples would be available later in 2016. Navy humour at its best brought a quip from Lt Cross a flight Commander with 848” With no careful owner”. Lt Alex Cross is now looking forward to converting on to the more modern Merlin and in conversation he said that one of the significant advantages of the new Merlin would be that the tail ramp which would be a significant improvement on the Mighty King for no matter how well trained the “Booties” are disembarking out the side of a Sea King takes a finite amount of time, and the ramp of the Merlin would speed up the deplaning process and reduce the period of time that the helicopter was at its most vulnerable.
Lt Cross is currently the commander of A Flight on 848 and during the briefing highlighted the capabilities of the Sea King which in addition to the tactical mobility included insertion of troops the Sea King was said to be designed to carry twenty-eight Royal Marines, using either fast roping or abseiling techniques from a 100 foot and 200 foot respectively and load lifting with the Sea King able to lift up to 8,000lbs. The Sea King has performed CASEVAC with a high degree of success in its service life and has a 200 foot cable winch rated at 600 lb over the door in common with the SAR Sea King allowing it to perform a Secondary SAR role.The Operational Training Squadron also had a secondary tasking to provide a Maritime Counter Terrorism support for the Royal Marines and 848 to this over when she began Sea King operations and will hand the batten over to 846 NAS when she stands down at the end of next month.
848 NAS Decommissioning Parade is set to be held at the end of March along with a Final Flypast, to be held on the 21st March by which time it is expected that they will only have three Cabs on the flight line. During 848 NAS final Sea King H C Mk 4s flypast over the South and South West of England, the CHF link with Afghanistan will be remembered as one of the aircraft will carry the “Rally for Heroes” shell casing memorial which has been engraved with the names of each of the 454 members of the British Armed Forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan. Rally for Heroes plan to drive 5 miles every two years to raise £100,000 for SSAFA with fifty cars driving across eight countries in eight days every two years. The next Rally will be later this year with the vehicles departing from HMS Victory carrying the casing, on August 5th.