815 Squadron’s Wildcat engineering first to support Gulf operations

Topic: Fighting armsFleet Air Arm

Fleet Air Arm helicopter engineers worked around the clock to fit the first new fifth-generation sensors to the front-line Wildcat fleet.

The team from 815 Naval Air Squadron – which provides frigates and destroyers with Wildcat helicopters, air and ground crew – faced a race against time to install the latest Identification Friend or Foe system (typically shortened to IFF) so the aircraft could operate safely in the busy skies of the Gulf.

IFF dates back to the earliest days of radar and the Battle of Britain and was designed to prevent the RAF accidentally intercepting its own units rather than Luftwaffe formations.

Since then it’s evolved considerably – IFF is into its fifth generation, but the basic principal remains the same as it was 80 years ago: radar sends an encrypted signal to an aircraft’s onboard IFF system, which responds with a positive indication that the aircraft is a ‘friend’.

Today IFF remains vital, especially when operating with other NATO countries where automated defence systems are used.

The latest iteration of the system, Mode 5, was needed to allow Montrose’s and Argyll’s Wildcats operate safely alongside US forces in the Gulf.

The engineering team at Yeovilton had hoped it would involve a quick software upgrade for the helicopters.

“No such luck I’m afraid – it required an entirely new IFF system integrating with the current mission systems on the Wildcat,” said senior maintenance rating Chief Petty Officer Jay Partington. “Not something that was going to happen overnight.”

Indeed such a big job was the upgrade that it meant carrying out the work in Somerset and flying out the enhanced Wildcats to the Gulf in the back of an RAF C-17 transporter, replacing the helicopters Argyll and Montrose had been operating.

The engineers had just three weeks to install the new kit and prepare the Wildcats for their 3,500-mile journey to the Middle East – a challenge compounded by Covid… which meant the engineers accompanying the helicopters had to isolate in the UK… and then in the Gulf on arrival.

It took an ‘all hands on deck’ response from squadron to ready the upgraded helicopters in time – including Commanding Officer Commander Scott Simpson climbing into the cockpit for a weekend test flight; the aircraft were delivered to RAF Brize Norton for dispatch to the Middle East with minutes to spare.

And at the other end, the Wildcats were prepared to join the frigates. Except the engineers on the ground couldn’t interact with the engineers who flew out with the helicopters. They also had to wear full PPE in punishing Gulf temperatures.

“Working in the heat presented its own challenges,” said Jay. “Everything took that little longer and you had to put that bit more effort in. Everyone worked tirelessly to have the Mode 5 aircraft ready to embark when their ships sailed.”

And so four weeks after the task came in and following successful test flights, the upgraded ‘Mode 5’ Wildcats joined their ships ready for crucial security patrols watching over the sea lanes of the Gulf, Indian Ocean and Red Sea “with a handful of hours to spare,” says Jay, who’s delighted by the joint effort.

He added: “The ‘can-do safely’ attitude and determination by everyone involved at every level meant that there was no gap in operational output.”

Everyone worked tirelessly to have the Mode 5 aircraft ready to embark when their ships sailed

Chief Petty Officer Jay Partington