Pilots earn their wings on Merlin sorties

Fourteen naval aviators are a step closer to taking the Royal Marines into the heart of battle after a week-long exercise in Merlin helicopters around the south coast.

The student pilots and aircrew of 846 Naval Air Squadron of Commando Helicopter Force have been on Exercise Merlin Storm, which tests them to the limit on challenging flights and is staged out of North Devon. 

That includes night flights with and without night vision, low level navigation and picking up underslung loads for delivery, as well as casualty rescue sorties.
Of course, considering the recent stormy weather, the conditions have often been challenging and made their missions even tougher.

There is also a tactical element, where the fliers must think about what it’s like to operate in hostile environments. They also lifted a rare fossil on the Jurassic Coast and moved 80 tonnes of gravel to Exmoor to repair a pathway. 

It’s the culmination of five years’ work. The end result – if the aviators make the cut – is earning their coveted wings and the ability to fly Merlins all over the world; off aircraft carriers, in the frozen Arctic, the desert, jungle, or wherever the Royal Marines are needed most on the frontlines.  

“Exercise Merlin Storm is the final training evolution for students going through the operational conversion flight of 846 Naval Air Squadron,” said Lieutenant Commander Phil Wray of Yeovilton-based 846. 

 

The students have had to cope with all manner of challenges that are new to them.

Lieutenant Commander Phil Wray

“It’s a chance for them to put into practice all the skills they’ve learnt on the OCF so far from pairs landing to underslung loads, low-level navigation and operations at night and with night vision glasses. 

“The students have had to cope with all manner of challenges that are new to them, including a tactical overlay, where we’ve been getting them to try and think about operating in a hostile environment, right through to the very nature of the Exmoor environment, which has often closed in on them.”

Eight pilots have been on this year’s exercise. Four of those are qualifying for the first time, while the other four are converting from other aircraft to the Merlin. Six aircrew were also put through their paces.

“This is the end of five years of flying training before we qualify as pilots and aircrewman,” said Lieutenant Matt Gordon.

“The beneficial things we’ve been able to do, like mountains in Norway, deck landings on RFA Argus and coming on Merlin Storm for the tactical stuff, those are the best parts.”