The Sorcerer's Apprentice

A course of trainee aircrew from RNAS Culdrose has recently been embarked in RFA Argus learning how to operate Merlin Helicopters from sea, including participating in the major NATO Exercise Joint Warrior, off the West coast of Scotland.

The Merlin course is made up of trainee Pilots, Observers and Aircrewmen. The Culdrose aviators embarked in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Primary Casualty Receiving and Aviation Training Ship: Argus.

The ship has three spots to land aircraft on and is equipped with its own hangar below the flight deck to allow the helicopters to be stored and maintenance work to be conducted.

The embarkation began with the Pilots testing their nerves and skills with a package of deck landings, including night landings with emergencies where the crews were then tested through a series of secondary roles sorties.

These involved undertaking different tasks with the helicopter around the ship at sea - ranging from picking up and dropping off underslung loads to the deck, winching simulated casualties in stretchers from the ship and using the aircraft’s hoist to winch up fuel hoses and refuel from the ship whilst hovering next to it.

Landing on a moving ship at night can be hard work, but you get a great sense of satisfaction when you get the aircraft safely down onto the deck

Lieutenant Ross Wiltshire, one of the trainee Pilots

Once the first phase was complete, the crews progressed to the tactical embarked part of the detachment: Exercise Joint Warrior 171.

This major NATO exercise groups multinational assets from Air, Land and Sea into different task groups where they have to deal with maintaining the peace in an exercise scenario based across the UK.

The students were set a series of flights where they had to protect the force from various threats, both on and under the water.

For the underwater battle, the crews utilised the Merlin’s state of the art sonics suite, comprising an active dipping sonar which is lowered into the water beneath the hovering aircraft, and its ability to drop sonar buoys which they can monitor from a different location, in order to locate and track an enemy submarine.

Leading Aircrewman Josh Bramley, whose role includes operating the sonics, said, “The tactical sorties were very busy, but it was great to see all our training working when we found a submarine.”

During their time away, 824 Sea Flight flew a total of 108 sorties over almost 170 flying hours from RFA Argus, including 239 deck landings.

The students training will stand them in good stead when the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers come into service later this year.

The trainees have now returned to RNAS Culdrose where they will finish off the last parts of their training, before being awarded their coveted naval wings and being assigned to Front Line Merlin Squadrons.