Naval aviators say thank-you to Admiral

One of the longest serving sailors in the Royal Navy, helicopter engineers who moved a Sea King by road through the heart of Dubai and a Wildcat crew who flown in almost every environment in the past 12 months were singled out at the naval aviation awards.

Hundreds of air and ground crew mustered at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset for one of the largest gatherings of Fleet Air Arm personnel in recent years to celebrate the achievements of flying at sea – and to bid farewell to their head of the arm.

Rear Admiral Keith Blount has been in charge of the Fleet Air Arm for nearly four years and is off to Northwood to take charge of NATO’s principal naval headquarters, Maritime Command (or MARCOM).

Also departing for pastures new is his right-hand-man, WO1 Paul Stephenson, the Fleet Air Arm’s Command Warrant Officer, who provides the admiral with feedback and opinion on day-to-day issues affecting the thousands of men and women in the Fleet Air Arm.

After the supersession and military music courtesy of the Band of HM Royal Marines Portsmouth, the focus shifted to the Fleet Air Arm’s annual awards.

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Stepping into their shoes are Rear Admiral Martin Connell, a former Lynx observer and captain of carrier HMS Illustrious, who will oversee the continuing rebirth of fast jet carrier operations among other challenges, aided by veteran air engineering technician WO1 Chris Boucher who’s served since 1988.

After the supersession and military music courtesy of the Band of HM Royal Marines Portsmouth, the focus shifted to the Fleet Air Arm’s annual awards.

The Sopwith Pup Trophy for the most effective ship’s flight goes to the Wildcat aircrew and maintainers and technicians of 213 Flight/815 Naval Air Squadron after a hectic 2018: operations in the Gulf, supporting HMS Monmouth in the Baltic and Atlantic, helping HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight trials and a demanding combined exercise with RNAS Culdrose’s squadrons, Crimson Flag.

Among Admiral Blount’s last acts as head of naval aviation was to sign a commendation on behalf of five engineers from 849 Naval Air Squadron for dealing with a ‘downed bird’ in one of the world’s most congested cities.

A Bagger Sea King Mk7 was forced to make an emergency landing at the Atlantis Hotel complex on the exclusive Palm Jumeirah development in Dubai when the main rotor gearbox lost all oil.

he helicopter landed safely, but the engineers said the gearbox was beyond repair – forcing them to move the stricken aircraft by road, rather than fly it to their base.

That meant a 40-mile journey through the heart of the UAE. It took ten days of planning and partial dismantling – removing the blades, rotor head, gearbox, both engines and the rotor assembly so the Sea King could pass through a tunnel.

On top of the engineering challenge this was carried out in a foreign country, away from their base, in stifling heat and humidity, and with local police, businesses and authorities to deal with.

It was all conducted, said the admiral, with “ingenuity and initiative, teamwork, grit and enthusiasm”; the Sea King was safely recovered.

The Bambara Shield for Flight Safety is being shared by three units: 1700 NAS and the fixed-wing Continuing Airworthiness Management Organisation, both based at Culdrose, plus Yeovilton’s 815 NAS; the latter is recognised for a squadron-wide ‘flight safety culture’, especially for deployed Wildcat flights on ships.

The CAMO team oversee the airworthiness of Hawks, Avengers and drones at Culdrose, with their efforts helping to improve the material state of the jet trainers in particular.

1700 provide extra bodies for RN and RFA ships on deployment – especially flight deck teams – and have been instrumental in aviation trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth and the new Tide-class tankers with the emphasis on safety in all they do.

And finally, Chief Petty Officer Michael Evans, based at Culdrose where he looks after Merlins, joined the RN in 1981 – about the same time as Britain committed itself to the project which would ultimately turn into the Merlin.

As part of efforts to ensure men and women who have served their nation leave the RN with a fitting farewell, a new valedictory certificate has been produced. Any man or woman who has spent 35 years or more under the White Ensign receives a ‘gold’ certificate, signed by the First Sea Lord.

Already a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal for his dedication and character, and a Commander-in-Chief’s Commendation for courage and composure, the senior rating was told he “should be justifiably proud” of his achievements and the legacy he left behind in the Fleet Air Arm.

Proceedings closed with the presentation of a wooden model of HMS Queen Elizabeth to Admiral Blount before he left the hangar in an Aston Martin Vanquish loaned for the occasion.