Trainee Merlin crews spring into action with carrier battle group

Rookie naval aviators from Culdrose were given a taste of the big league when they learned how to work at sea with Britain’s largest warship.

Trainee pilots, observers, aircrewmen and engineers learning to operate the Merlin Mk2 joined HMS Queen Elizabeth and her task group in the USA.

The students from 824 Naval Air Squadron spend around a year mastering the state-of-the-art helicopter – regarded as the world’s premier submarine hunter – in and around the Cornish air station.

That training reaches its climax with sea time as aircrew deal with the challenges of landing and taking off on a pitching and rolling ship, while engineers must learn how to maintain Merlins with limited tools and limited space.

Once we had got our first few deck landings out of the way the excitement of operating as part of a task group supporting HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first deployment really kicked in.

Lt Phill Fordham RN

And all have to get used to living at sea, such as daily routines and mess deck life.

Typically, naval fliers get their sea legs with a few days off the Cornish coast aboard aviation training ship RFA Argus.

As she’s just about to emerge from a major refit in Falmouth, however, the Fleet Air Arm has sought other flight decks to train its Wildcat and Merlin air and ground crew.

The latest batch of trainees sailed with new tanker RFA Tidespring, built to provide Queen Elizabeth and her battle group with fuel. She’s also designed to carry helicopters up to Chinook size.

Beyond take-offs and landings, once embarked the Merlin trainees tackled challenges such as load lifting, a hi-line transfer – safely lowering a guideline to someone waiting below before conducting a lift, or winching a person to safety – and refuelling without having to land on deck.

And once Tidespring had caught up with the carrier following a pitstop in Halifax, Canada, it meant aircrew could practise ferrying supplies across to the largest flight deck in Royal Navy history.

“Flying a helicopter to and from a ship at sea is the culmination of three years of training for us as naval aviators – it’s what separates us from our compatriots in the other two services,” said Lt Phill Fordham, a trainee pilot.

“Once we had got our first few deck landings out of the way the excitement of operating as part of a task group supporting HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first deployment really kicked in.

“There was never a dull day and because we were able to witness the wider spectrum of naval operations like landings of the Fleet Air Arm’s new F-35s to refuelling the new aircraft carrier whilst underway, we really got the sense that we were a small part of something big and exciting.”

Ben Flint, a trainee observer – responsible for a Merlin’s sensors and weapon systems – said after years of “theory and talks” joining the carrier group was “a great experience”.

He continued: “Working alongside HMS Queen Elizabeth and various other surface ships and aircraft over the three weeks added new dimensions to our training which we hadn't previously been a part of. It gave us useful insights into the environments we will all be working in during our first front-line deployments.”

Most of the aircrewmen, like Leading Seaman Alex Hart, had spent little or no time at sea before joining Tidespring.

“It was extremely challenging to practising refuelling and replenishments for the first time in the North Atlantic – but extremely rewarding and satisfying to complete them.

“We also practiced tactical flying which was interesting to convert these skills from the simulator to the aircraft. It was all well rounded off with time ashore with our peers in Canada and America.”

The three months off North America allowed two groups of trainees to earn their seagoing qualifications. Aircrew who successfully completed the training aboard Tidespring will now receive their Wings – the coveted badge of honour which says they are ready for the front line.