814 NAS chase subs in the Mediterranean

The eyes of the Tiger proved to be as sharp as ever as Merlin helicopters joined NATO’s No.1 anti-submarine exercise of the year in Sicily.

814 Naval Air Squadron – aka the Flying Tigers – was invited to take part in Dynamic Manta, the alliance’s annual Mediterranean workout for anti-submarine forces.

Ten nations committed ships, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters to the two-week exercise, taking place in the Ionian Sea to the east and south of Catania.

Two Merlins from Culdrose in Cornwall flew across western Europe and touched down at Maristaeli air base in Catania – in the shadow of Mount Etna... and home of the Italian Navy’s own Merlin force.

Dynamic Manta was a great training opportunity – it allowed my Tigers to hone their anti-submarine skills against worthy adversaries.

Commander Sarah Birchett

Nine surface ships led the hunt for five boats – including one British attack submarine – as helicopters such as those from 814 dropped sonobuoys and ‘dipped’ their sonar in the Mediterranean to listen for the tell-tale noises made by their underwater foes.

The chance to ‘play’ with both nuclear and conventional diesel-powered submarines in waters six degrees warmer and nearly ten times deeper than around the squadron’s native Cornwall – all factors which affect the ability of sonar to find boats – made Dynamic Manta an extremely useful training exercise.

“We succeeded in tracking ‘hostile’ submarines and scored confirmed kills. There was also some friendly cooperation with a boat – not all submariners deserve a torpedo from a Merlin!” said Commander Sarah Birchett, 814’s Commanding Officer – known as ‘Tiger Boss’.

“Dynamic Manta was a great training opportunity – it allowed my Tigers to hone their anti-submarine skills against worthy adversaries.

“Junior aircrew found operating in unfamiliar surroundings with nine other nations was an exciting challenge. They thrived in such an environment and became better aviators – and better submarine hunters – as a result.”

Even though ‘only’ two Merlins were required for the fortnight-long exercise, 68 men and women – air and ground crew – were needed to support them for the duration of Dynamic Manta… while planning began five months ago.

The Tiger team had to sort out everything from permission for military helicopters to fly 1,400 miles through foreign airspace down to speaking to hospitals in Sicily about medical treatment should the Merlins crash while in Catania, or the Brits become struck down by a severe ailment.

The squadron also had to shift 35 tonnes of equipment, spare parts and tools – including 210 litres of oil and hydraulic fuel to the Italian air base.

It took six containers loaded aboard four lorries to carry the support pack – and four days to make the 1,917-mile road/tunnel/ferry journey from Cornwall to Catania.

Dynamic Manta is one of two large-scale anti-submarine exercises NATO runs; the other, Dynamic Mongoose, tests the ability of those same forces but in the cooler waters of the North and Norwegian Seas. Merlins from Culdrose usually take part in both.