1700 Squadron – the vital team key to Navy’s Caribbean relief mission

Sailors from Culdrose air station are playing a key role in the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Caribbean task force.

Aviation training/support ship RFA Argus – carrying four military helicopters and elite Royal Marines – is likely to be the UK’s first response to a devastating hurricane should it strike the region during the impending hurricane season.

The ship has joined forces with the UK’s Caribbean patrol ship, new River-class vessel HMS Medway, which arrived on station earlier this year and will remain in the region long-term under the Royal Navy’s Forward Presence programme.

The helicopters – three-troop carrying Merlins and a smaller, agile maritime Wildcat – plus a specialist detachment of Royal Marines Commandos and Royal Engineers will be at the vanguard of any relief effort.

But none would land or take-off on Argus without trained aircraft handlers who guide the helicopters on to and off the flight deck safely, oversee refueling, firefighting in the event of an accident, and the safe transfer of loads slung beneath the aircraft, under the direction of Flying Control, the ship’s aviation officer. All come from 1700 Squadron.

Operating the third largest flight deck in the Royal Navy is only as good as the embarked flight deck teams. Both the aircraft engineers and the aircraft handlers are out in all weathers, day and night.

Lieutenant Commander Neil Harris

“Operating the third largest flight deck in the Royal Navy is only as good as the embarked flight deck teams,” explained Lieutenant Commander Neil Harris, in charge of the Culdrose team aboard Argus. “Both the aircraft engineers and the aircraft handlers are out in all weathers, day and night.”

The unique squadron – which, despite its name, possesses no aircraft – provides ships across the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary with specialist teams of sailors to carry out their mission.

At any one time, two thirds of the squadron is deployed; right now, there are 53 men and women from Culdrose on Argus… even though no helicopters from the Cornish air station are embarked.

They make up an eclectic team of aircraft handlers, engineers, naval police officers, medics and others ensure not just the smooth running of the busy flight deck.

Since Argus left Plymouth in March, the 1700 team has trained extensively to ensure they are ready for any situation they might encounter – set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic which meant personnel had to isolate/maintain a safe social distance from colleagues and family members ashore.

With serious casualties always likely in a hurricane, medics from 1700 Squadron have practiced carefully moving critically-ill patients quickly and comfortably from a disaster zone to the ship, either by using the Merlins and Wildcat or by boat.