Navy helicopters’ 10,000-mile mission in first month of Ebola effort

Royal Navy helicopters have flown more than 10,000 miles over Sierra Leone in the fight against Ebola.

In their first month in West Africa, the Merlins of 820 Naval Air Squadron have covered the length and breadth of the small republic supporting Britain’s efforts on the ground to halt the spread of the disease.

Using support ship RFA Argus as their base, the three helicopters have spent more than nine days in the skies, over 210 hours, delivering supplies, food, stores and people.

Among the Merlins’ passengers during their first month in West Africa: Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma, who was flown to remote towns to allow him to spread the message on combating Ebola.

The response from the people of Sierra Leone continues to amaze

said Cdr Ross Spooner RN

The 14-tonne helicopters, based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, are normally used for chasing down submarines, pirate and drug-runners.

For the mission in Sierra Leone, codenamed Operation Gritrock, the helicopters are effectively being used as ‘flying trucks’, slinging loads in huge nets beneath them containing several tonnes of desperately-needed aid.

They’ve flown three-dozen sorties to date in support of the British Government’s £230m effort to deal with the disease in Sierra Leone.

Six Ebola treatment centres are being set up by the UK with the goal of providing beds for more than 700 patients and medical care to around 8,800 people over six months.

In addition, the three helicopters have been flying supplies for the United Nations’ World Food Programme into the mountains in the heart of Sierra Leone to support its efforts against Ebola – a mission which was a few hours for the Merlins, but would have taken vehicles on the ground two days.

 “The squadron is really delivering everything asked of us,” said Cdr Ross Spooner, the squadron’s Commanding Officer.

“The response from the people of Sierra Leone continues to amaze, with the aircraft generating huge crowds wherever we land.

“The focus and commitment of personnel and many non-government organisations who are on the front-line of the fight against Ebola in remote and isolated sites is extremely humbling and fully deserving of all the support we can provide.

“The challenge now is to sustain the significant effort to ensure we sustain the incredibly positive impact achieved so far.”

Temperatures in Argus’ hangar have been nudging 40˚C, and with humidity at 95 per cent, 820’s engineers have been pushing their physical boundaries.

They are working eight-hour shifts, making sure one Merlin is always available for daily duties and another is ready to scramble at 30 minutes’ notice.

Aircrew usually fly at least six hours in the heat every day they are on duty, but it can rise to eight in the event of a particularly important or pressing mission.

“The aircraft themselves also suffer in the heat, the gas turbine engines do not give as much power, and the rotor blades do not generate as much lift in hot conditions as they do in cold,” explained aircrewman WO1 Jay O’Donnell.

“It means the helicopters cannot lift as much weight, stores, people or fuel.”

To get around the problem, the squadron’s engineers have stripped the Merlins down to the bare bones, whilst making sure the helicopters can still safely operate in and out of the landing sites and confined areas which they need to visit.

820 are just one element of a substantial commitment by the Naval Service to the Ebola mission. Argus also sailed from Falmouth carrying two landing craft, two RIBs and three Zodiac boats from 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines.