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Illustrious and her Apache gunships breathe fire and fury in the Med

Apache on board HMS Illustrious


For the second time this year HMS Illustrious launched Army Apache gunships to fire live Hellfire missiles as the helicopters let rip on the ranges off Gibraltar. Seven tank-busting missiles were successfully fired by the Apaches as the carrier headed west having completed her part in the Royal Navy’s key autumn deployment, Cougar 12.

We have once again demonstrated the combination of Army Apache helicopters launched from the deck of HMS Illustrious are a potent mix, capable of combat against targets on land and at sea anywhere in the world
Capt Martin Connell

THE world’s best tank-busting missile accelerates away from the world’s best tank-busting helicopter as HMS Illustrious’ Apaches let rip on the range in the western Mediterranean.

For the second time this year the Army Air Corps gunships were launched from the deck of the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier to fire live missiles.

Two Apaches from 656 Squadron AAC were sent aloft from Lusty’s flight deck as the sun rose over the western Med near Gibraltar.

With the ranges clear of all other shipping and aircraft, the two gunships sent seven Hellfires into specialist targets up to 2.5km (1.5 miles) away, sending debris and shrapnel spinning across the sea as they impacted, obliterating their targets.

The Hellfire has proven itself repeatedly in Afghanistan and was used extensively in last year’s Libyan campaign, when Apaches flew from the deck of HMS Ocean against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces – the first time the gunships had been used in anger at sea.

Back in the spring, Illustrious carried out the first live Hellfire firings in UK waters and now has repeated that exercise in the Med.

As well as training for the Apache crews, the firings allowed Lusty’s specialist air engineer weapons supply team to practise safely moving the missiles (each carries a 9kg/20lb warhead) from the carrier’s magazine to the flight deck, where the squadron’s armourers loaded them on to the helicopters.

Apaches can carry up to 16 Hellfires, mounted in sets of four on pylons beneath the helicopter’s stubby wings.

The missile leaves its launch rail and accelerates to a speed of Mach 1.3 – that’s 425 metres every second or 950mph, which means it takes fewer than 20 seconds to reach a target at its maximum range of eight kilometres (five miles).

In this instance the missiles were launched at special radar-designated targets – basically lots of aluminium sheeting with radar reflectors attached – which could be picked up by the fire control system on the Apaches and by the Hellfires themselves.

Just as we successfully proved earlier this year, the latest Hellfire firings conducted from Illustrious have once again demonstrated the combination of Army Apache helicopters launched from the deck of HMS Illustrious are a potent mix, capable of combat against targets on land and at sea anywhere in the world,” said Capt Martin Connell, Illustrious’ Commanding Officer.

His ship is Portsmouth-bound – due to arrive home on Friday – having completed her part in the Cougar 12 deployment to the Mediterranean.

Cougar saw the UK’s Response Force Task Group, led by flagship HMS Bulwark, carry out amphibious exercises with the French Navy off Corsica, then with the Albanians in the Adriatic.

Pictures: PO(Phot) Ray Jones, HMS Illustrious

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