This has been a fantastic opportunity for Okinawa Flight to put their training into practice.

Lieutenant Commander Simon Wood

High over the Gulf, the eyes of the crews are fixed both on the present and the daily strikes by the French – their ground and carrier-based jets are conducting around 100 missions per week – and on the future and the return of Royal Navy fast jet operations when HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales enter service with F-35 stealth fighters.

To that end, as well as carrying out surveillance, the Sea King crews have been directing French NH-90 helicopters and Rafale fighter jets to maintain their fighter controller skills – vital with the F-35 coming into service.

“It’s great to see how the French operate,” said Lieutenant Jonathan Duke, one of three pilots with Okinawa Flight, the detachment from 849 Naval Air Squadron which is using supply ship RFA Fort Victoria as its launchpad for operations.

“With our own carriers on the way, there are lots of lessons that we can learn to ensure that we are ready for them.”

Conditions in the Gulf at this time of year are relatively pleasant – daytime temperatures of 20˚C – but maintaining helicopters whose airframes are more than 40 years old is demanding for Okinawa Flight’s engineers and technicians: for every hour a Bagger spends in Gulf skies it demands 20 hours’ attention in Fort Victoria’s hangar.

“This has been a fantastic opportunity for Okinawa Flight to put their training into practice,” said Lieutenant Commander Simon Wood, 849’s senior pilot.

“With the exceptional support of RFA Fort Victoria, flying in support of the Charles De Gaulle Carrier Battle Group has provided a unique opportunity to work with our French counterparts.”

Although most of the Sea King force retires next month – the red and grey Search and Rescue units at HMS Gannet and 771 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose, and the green ‘flying cavalry’ of the Royal Marines in the Commando Helicopter Force at Yeovilton – the Baggers continue to act as the eyes of the Fleet until 2018.