On Monday January 26th, two Sea King Mk4s deployed to Rollestone Camp from their home base of RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. Exercise Merlin Storm 2 was to be a week-long exercise accompanied by 45 Commando Royal Marines with a programme of winch training, under-slung load training and a full airborne assault which would take place in the early hours of Friday morning. Although the exercise was primarily a Royal Navy one, it was heavily supported by Apaches from AAC Middle Wallop and additional Tornado fast-air when required. On Wednesday I was invited to spend the day with the crews of 845 NAS to find out how it was all going.
845 Naval Air Squadron is the sole remaining Sea King Mk4 squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force; the wings of the Royal Marines. The Commando Helicopter Force is a specialised amphibious unit that is primarily responsible for supporting 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. The Royal Navy Sea Kings have been involved with almost every major conflict since the Falklands and the Mk4 got it’s ‘Junglie’ nickname not from their green colour but from the role that the Commando helicopter squadrons played in Borneo, back in the 1960s.
The last couple of decades have been a testing time for the Commando Helicopter Force as they’ve been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan where they’ve had to perform outside of their main role. The Sea Kings had to be upgraded to Mk4+ standard so that they could cope with the high altitude, desert environment and this included: stronger rotor blades, more powerful engines, defensive aids and decoys to combat heat seeking missiles as well as night-vision goggles.
With British forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, it’s time for the Commando Helicopter Force to get back to what it does best; assisting the Royal Marines with amphibious operations. Exercise Merlin Storm 2 was a chance to practice the land based element of an amphibious assault and should have consisted of both Sea King and Merlin helicopters (as the name suggests) but the 846 NAS Merlins had already deployed to Norway. As a result the ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings were tasked to take full control of the exercise.
After an in-depth morning flight briefing, the engineers prepared the two helicopters for the day ahead. I sat down with Lt Steve Pearce to discuss the past, present and future of the Commando Helicopter Force.
“In recent years we’ve been so focused on both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that we can finally get back to more traditional training. The reason that the Commando Helicopter Force exists is for amphibious operations; taking Marines from the ship to the shore. We haven’t really done anything like that since 2003 – that was the last real world amphibious assault. A lot of the guys who have been flying for the last 10 years are experienced ‘Junglie’ pilots but have not had many deck landings.”
Much like we’ve seen with the RAF Chinook and AAC Lynx squadrons, the Royal Navy Sea King Mk4s have mainly been operational in hot and dusty environments, so has this had an impact on the CHF as a whole?
“We are still the most specialised amphibious helicopter support unit in the world, however during the last ten years in Afghanistan we have been focused on flying in the ‘land’ environment, we are now able to concentrate on the littoral role. Hopefully we’ll also be able to get more involved with the regular amphibious exercises like Exercise Joint Warrior and Cougar deployment.”
Cougar is a four-month deployment and includes a number of amphibious and maritime exercises. The Royal Navy team up with partner nations throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East regions to ensure that the task group is ready to respond to any international crisis.
“We’re doing a lot more work with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary at the moment as well and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Although we can quite easily land on their ships’ decks, they’re not true warships and as such, are not ideally equipped for our operations.”
There are currently only twelve active airframes between the two Commando Helicopter Force squadrons and this number will fall even further to just seven in the near future as the aircraft heads to retirement in fourteen months time. With just over a year left, what will the crews be doing?
“We are currently on high-readiness – if something happens anywhere in the world, we can be called up at very short notice to deploy there and get the job done. After that we’ll have eleven months left to run, effectively keeping the skillsets alive for the junior crews and the plan is to make many airshow appearances up and down the country – a farewell tour if you like. Operationally we’ll be maintaining the maritime counter-terrorism role, although that will mainly be carried out by the more senior crews. In May, 845 NAS will take on the Merlin and 848 NAS will step up on the Sea King Mk4. Essentially we will be re-badged, 848 NAS will be the same crews and the same airframes but a different squadron.”
The Royal Navy are replacing the aging Sea King Mk4 with the ex-RAF Merlin Mk3. Over the next few years, the 25 Mk3 Merlins will undergo conversion to Mk4 standard so that the aircraft is fully capable of deploying in a maritime/amphibious role. It is understood that the Merlin will not maintain the ‘Junglie’ commando green colour and once converted, will be decorated in the same grey camouflage scheme as the Royal Navy Wildcat.
You would have thought that it would be safe to assume that the Sea King crews will convert to the Merlin but it doesn’t seem to be that straight forward, Lt Pearce explains why.
“It will all depend on what’s happening at the time. There are an awful lot of senior ‘Junglies’ higher up the chain that would get priority when it comes to the conversion course. They’ll take up the first few courses and we’ll then need to slot in behind them. I imagine some guys will probably move to Wildcat and some will get early Staff jobs to further their career.”
Typically, as soon as we’d finished our interview and the crews were getting ready to lift, the heavens opened and Salisbury Plain was pelted by hail. The next couple of hours were trying for the crews, the wind really picked up and the exercise was unfortunately cut short. The gales became too strong for junior Marines to safely winch in and out of the woodland area and the temperamental weather also made the under-slung load training exceptionally difficult.
The ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings may have been around for some 30 years but their time is running out and the clock is ticking. 2015 will be the last chance you have to see the infamous helicopter take part in the explosive Commando Assault finale at RNAS Yeovilton Air Day so get your tickets now at:
I’d like to thank the crews of 845 NAS for their time and hospitality, and also the Commando Helicopter Force Public Relations office for granting the access required to make this article possible.