The navy fliers at the heart of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group

F-35 Lighting jets are without doubt the headline-grabbers on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Westlant deployment – but less conspicuous are the navy fliers who are central to the Carrier Strike Group’s work.

Aviators of RNAS Yeovilton-based 845 Naval Air Squadron have one of the most varied roles within the Strike Group and their latest deployment with Queen Elizabeth is getting them razor sharp for full carrier operations in 2021. 

During Westlant, off the east coast of the United States, the Commando Merlin pilots and aircrew’s day to day work involves them flying stores around the Carrier Strike Group’s (CSG) warships and ashore, keeping everything ticking over on the mammoth operation. 

But the Commando Helicopter Force fliers of 845 NAS are also on standby for search-and-rescue missions at sea and over land, while also carrying the punch of the embarked Royal Marines of Lima Company, 42 Commando.

It means the F-35 Lightning jets flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth can work to their full potential knowing that 845 NAS and Lima Company are on hand, prepared to drop in behind enemy lines to rescue ‘downed’ pilots.

This time around, B-Flight or ‘Furious Flight’ – so named after HMS Furious, the first British warship on which a deck landing was carried out at sea – are on Westlant, replacing their A-Flight kin who were on last year’s deployment, and have taken three of their Commando Merlin Mk4s onto HMS Queen Elizabeth. 

When they’re needed, 845 are a high-trained, specialist, helicopter force, able to infiltrate enemy airspace and, with Lima Company, rescue any pilots isolated on the ground. 

I’m exceptionally proud to be part of a team of air and ground crew who are consistently delivering in a varied, complex and challenging environment; operating from a ship as awesome as HMS Queen Elizabeth is a true career highlight and represents a realisation of a childhood ambition of becoming a naval aviator.

Lieutenant Tom Lennon, Commando Merlin pilot

“Being able to utilise both our ‘green’ Commando Aviation and ‘grey’ blue-water maritime skills has been highly satisfying. Working very closely with the Royal Marines of 42 Commando and the F35s is demanding, dynamic and exciting. 

“845’s hard work in the run up to this deployment has paid dividends; our embarked flight’s aircrew are comprehensively trained and well drilled in the extreme demands of operating battlefield rotary wing aircraft at sea.

“The training we conducted in the UK prior to embarkation, including operating from a variety of RN and RFA Vessels, has been rapidly consolidated during our first few weeks on board.”

The main priorities for 845 during their Westlant deployment is to get new aircrew up to scratch and refreshing more experienced fliers in day and night deck landings, not only on Queen Elizabeth but fellow CSG warships HMS Dragon and HMS Northumberland. 

Furious Flight have also been testing their search and rescue capability as well as training to operate aircraft from ship to shore into potentially hostile enemy territory to rescue personnel from downed aircrew to Special Forces teams. This element of the training is called Joint Personnel Recovery and is a vital skill for the CSG. 

Of course, with such a busy schedule of flying missions, this has been a challenge for the engineers dedicated to working on the Commando Merlin. 

“‘This has been an invaluable period of time at sea for the engineers of 845 NAS,” said Leading Air Engineer Technician Tim Fagg.

“Despite a portion of us embarking in HMS Queen Elizabeth for ten days of sea trials a few weeks prior to the main deployment, the flight still arrived with the vast majority of the Junior Rates having never been to sea. 

“For all of us and for those individuals in particular, the transit across the Atlantic was straight in at the deep end. 

“The routines for launching, recovering, and moving aircraft on deck (all considerably more complex, arduous and time consuming than the same procedures ashore) had to be learnt in driving horizontal rain on a heavily rolling deck. 

“Work ramped up to such a tempo that considerable gains were made in knowledge and experience levels before we hit our first stop in Halifax; the whole flight was working smoothly as one entity. Despite the workload, morale has remained high throughout our time at sea, with many organised sporting and social events eagerly attended.”