Wildcat helicopter home after hurricane disaster relief mission

Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter Flight 216 from 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) has returned home after a seven month deployment in the Caribbean embarked on RFA Mounts Bay.

The helicopter and flight personnel, under the command of Lieutenant (Lt) Amy Gilmore, landed back at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton to the delight of their waiting families, friends and colleagues.

Normally based at the air station in Somerset, the state-of-the-art aircraft was assigned to RFA Mounts Bay for the duration of her Caribbean deployment, to provide security and reassurance to UK Overseas Territories (UKOT), including disaster relief when called upon, and conducting counter-narcotics operations with partners in the region.

When category 5 hurricane Irma struck the small islands in September, the Wildcat helicopter was airborne from day one conducting reconnaissance sorties for Anguilla’s Governor and disaster relief co-ordinators.

Whilst the true extent of the devastation caused by the hurricane across the islands was yet to be fully realised, the Fleet Air Arm set about doing what it does best.

As my first deployment as Flight Commander this has been the most demanding flying I have ever conducted and it has also been the most rewarding

Lieutenant Amy Gilmore, Flight Commander/Observer 216 Flight

With seven hours of flying, 30 landings, 52 personnel lifted ashore and back, and six tonnes of aid delivered in one day, the agility of the new Wildcat helicopter was apparent for all to see.

216 Flight left 815 NAS at RNAS Yeovilton in May this year with her team of engineers and operators for their deployment embarked in British ships RFA Wave Knight then RFA Mounts Bay to the Caribbean ahead of the annual hurricane season.

With Mounts Bay pre-positioned in the region, the embarked Wildcat was a vanguard of the UK’s disaster relief operation when the full force of Hurricane Imra struck the area in early September, helping British dependencies with their rescue efforts.

Between 7 September and 9 October over 22 tonnes of aid was delivered by 216 Flight including shelter kits, water, food, medical and baby supplies.

This required 90 hours of flying! One spectacular rescue mission saw aircrew safely winch a mother and two children from the hull of a capsized merchant vessel.

The team worked around the clock with the Royal Navy’s newest helicopter to provide aid and assistance to people in the hardest hit and most inaccessible areas.

Lt Amy Gilmore said, “As my first deployment as Flight Commander this has been the most demanding flying I have ever conducted and it has also been the most rewarding. 

“We have been able to make a real difference in helping the local people recover from the devastation these hurricanes have caused and that’s because of the fantastic team I’ve had the privilege of working with. The Wildcat has delivered beyond all expectations, an absolutely fantastic aircraft.

”I’ve been involved in disaster relief previously,” continued Amy, “but nothing I’ve seen before compares to what we saw, the British Virgin Islands were particularly hard hit, and we really hope all of those affected are able to get themselves back on their feet soon.”

Commanding Officer of 815 NAS, Commander Jamieson Stride said, “I am delighted to welcome 216 Flight back home to 815 NAS after their 7 month deployment with their Wildcat helicopter to the North Atlantic and Caribbean. 

“Uniquely placed whilst deployed in RFA Mounts Bay to respond instantly after the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma and then Maria, 216 Flight were instrumental in providing the first response to many islanders in the British Overseas Territories and facilitating access to the islands for the follow-on relief effort. 

“Similarly, their efforts alongside our US counterparts on counter-narcotic operations have had great success. I am extremely proud of their achievements over many months thousands of miles away from home. They and their families should be proud – their dedication and professionalism have been in the finest traditions of 815 NAS and the Fleet Air Arm.”

The Wildcat helicopter proved invaluable in conducting initial damage assessments, search and rescue missions, opening up local airports and load lifting tonnes of much needed food and water into isolated parts of the islands.

More powerful than its Lynx predecessor, the Wildcat is also very nimble and is able to squeeze into areas which larger aircraft would not be able to get to.

Amy’s husband, Steve Gilmore (a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy) was at RNAS Yeavilton to greet her after a seven month separation. 

Steve said, “I’m truly astounded, inspired and a little bit jealous of all that Amy and her team have achieved over the past month and throughout, she has been a driving force in ensuring they did all they could to help the victims of the hurricanes.

“Working with the amphibious assault ship RFA Mounts Bay, Royal Marines, Royal Engineers and Royal Logistics Corps, Amy has proven what a formidable force for good the Wildcat can be. I couldn’t be more proud!”

As 216 Flight head off for some well-earned leave Amy said, “I think I speak for the whole of 216 Flight when I say it’s been exhausting, exhilarating and rewarding but most of all one of the most humbling experiences. We are all very happy to be home.”