Flying Tigers practise lifesaving exercises

The squadron’s Merlin Mk2 helicopters are regularly called upon to support both Royal Navy operations and Royal Navy training north of the border. Faslane naval base is just 40 miles away… a matter of minutes in an aircraft which cruises at speeds in excess of 170mph…

We may have handed over Search and Rescue duties to the Coastguard on New Year’s Day in 2016, but…

  1. that doesn’t mean the Fleet Air Arm is no longer in the lifesaving business and
  2. that doesn’t mean the principal Fleet Air Arm base for lifesaving north of the border is no longer needed.

In fact, HMS Gannet at Prestwick is almost becoming a second home for the aviators of 814 Naval Air Squadron, normally based 380 miles away in Helston, southwest Cornwall.

As well as being the home of the Silent Service and all Sandown-class minehunters, Faslane is also the hub for training all small ships (survey vessels, mine warfare, patrol ships).

Hunters HMS Penzance and Hurworth, plus the latter’s sister Cattistock, are currently in the throes of Operational Sea Training – which prepares all Royal Navy warships for front-line duties.

None possesses a flight deck – but each must be able to get an injured shipmate to shore by the quickest means possible: helicopter transfer.

Which is a very skilful manoeuvre for ship’s company and aircrew alike. There is not even a winching deck on a Hunt-class ship like Hurworth.

There is, however, a lot of clutter and obstructions… and a space large enough to accommodate a stretcher.

The challenge with mine countermeasures vessels is that their decks are covered in lots of equipment for the disposing of mines so you have to be careful not to harm your aircrewman as you lower them to the deck

Lieutenant Commander Martin Young

With observer Lieutenant Michael Moxom on the winch and aircrewman Petty Officer Chris Roadley on the wire, the Merlin moved in to lift a simulated casualty (two broken legs) on board and get them to hospital as quickly as possible.

“The main mast of the ship is about six feet from the pilot’s window so their hovering has to be spot on – failing to anticipate a gust of wind or the roll of the sea could end very badly” explained flight commander Lieutenant Commander Martin Young.

“And from the ship’s perspective it is difficult to maintain your course with 14 tons of downwash pushing the stern of your vessel around. Add in a very busy shipping plot in the confined waters of the Firth of Clyde, tide, wind, and it makes for a challenging seamanship evolution.”

And one which Hurworth, Penzance and Cattistock all have to successfully complete before their OST training concludes at the end of next week.