The connection is the ability to take a problem, analyse it, and come up with a working answer – quickly.

“We’re a bit like the AA or RAC breakdown services, reacting whenever a helicopter needs specialist repair skills or techniques to get it flying again” said the Repair Manager, Lt Cdr Simon Peck.

It’s only just after 7am, but already the phones are ringing in 1710 NAS.  First to call is the Senior Repair Co-ordinator from one of the 1710 NAS repair teams deployed at sea repairing a Royal Naval Merlin helicopter on HMS Ocean.

Having responded and flown out to conduct the repair only hours after the fault was discovered, the team are now completing the work after just two days and are confirming that a repair officer has been despatched to clear the aircraft for flight.  

This team is one of the 13 front-line high-readiness repair teams within 1710 NAS who rapidly deploy across the UK and worldwide, fixing helicopters that are beyond the owning squadron’s ability to repair.

Mid morning the Aviation Forensics team receive a call informing them that a crack has been found on an aircraft component, which is now being rapidly couriered to the squadron to allow the team to study it.

The squadron’s materials investigation and analysis work is typically highly reactive and being a small, integrated team they are kept very busy with the sheer diversity of forensic engineering investigations, ranging from work on aircraft components and engines through to weapon systems, flight deck paints and ship’s propellers. 

The requirement for this support was borne out of the late 1930s when the Admiralty identified a need for maritime focused scientific support.

This led to the Naval Aircraft Materials Laboratory (NAML) being established in 1952, which together with the repair-focused Mobile Aircraft Support Unit (MASU) was to undergo a number of name changes, before some 58 years later these units were combined and formally commissioned as 1710 NAS in 2010. 

“The scientists are very proud of the long history of providing specialist support to the Fleet that they are upholding,” said Navy Command’s Chief Aviation Scientist Dr Richard Raistrick.

“As the Naval Service operates across the most demanding environments, most particularly at sea, but also everywhere from deserts to the ice caps and jungles, the need for a specialist Naval unit providing this reactive front-line support has remained critical for decades.”

By late morning another of the scientific teams, the Wear Debris section, has received a delivery of oil samples. This is nothing surprising, given this section receives and analyses over 40,000 samples per year.

The section checks the oil from aircraft to detect imminent failures. Known as Tribology, this work is key for helicopters, particularly when flying at sea where there’s no air station or field nearby to land on in the event of a problem.

Similarly 1710 NAS chemists analyse in the region of 3,000 samples per year, spanning fuels, oils, hydraulic fluids, lubricants and greases, through to forensic chemistry undertaken to support technical investigations into the causes of issues.

As if repair and scientific support wasn’t impressive enough, the squadron also provides a Service Modifications section, to enhance and improve helicopters by adding new equipment, systems and capabilities.

“If you want a GPS in your car you just buy it and stick it on the dashboard.  Achieving the same on an aircraft is far more complex due to the rigorous safety requirements for aircraft,” said the Service Modifications Manager and XO, Lt Cdr Dan Weil.

“Our modifications work also tends to be highly reactive, including meeting urgent operational requirements or mitigating risk to life, such as when an additional gun, radio, or sensor system may be required.”

Rapid prototyping is a key part of this process and hence that afternoon, the section is using its 3D printer to manufacture some test components to help optimise a particular design.

The designers then pass detailed computer-aided design drawings to the 1710 NAS workshops where the squadron’s staff then manufacture a new piece of equipment.

Although by early evening the offices may quieten down, the work rarely stops. The squadron normally works a minimum of a six-day week and the repair teams deployed across the world will often be working long hours seven days a week to get aircraft fit to fly as soon as possible.  Equally there is always an on-call scientist available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for emergencies.

The team are currently celebrating as through their work analysing paint degradation on Merlin helicopters and reducing the requirements for repainting, they’ve managed to save an estimated £13m for the RN’s Merlin Mk2 helicopters, and are aiming to save a further £8.5m for the Merlin Mk3 and 3A fleets.  

By the end of the day, the repair to the aircraft onboard HMS Ocean has been approved with the aid of the squadron’s metallurgists, composites expert and stress analyst, and is now being readied for the night’s operational tasking.

The remainder of the 12 Repair Teams have progressed repairs on aircraft spread across the world. The Wear Debris section has cleared over 140 samples.  Similarly, the POL section has analysed 11 samples, and dealt with a chemical problem with some fuel stored aboard one of the RN’s ships.

The forensics team have also analysed the crack on the aircraft component and confirmed that other aircraft remain safe to fly.  Meanwhile the squadron’s manufacturing workshop has turned more of the squadron’s modification design drawings into actual equipment ready to fit to aircraft.  Just a snapshot of a typical 1710 day.

HMNB Portsmouth

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