March 29, 2016 - The new wings of the Royal Marines have been getting their sea legs ready to carry commandos into action around the globe.
The green Merlins of 846 Naval Air Squadron joined Britain’s flagship HMS Ocean off the south coast for basic, but vital, amphibious training.
With the veteran green Sea King now retired – the legendary helicopters conducted a farewell fly-past around the South West – the burden of flying commandos into battle falls squarely on the Merlin.
The battlefield Merlin is bigger, faster, more powerful, has a greater range and is easier to board/disembark than the helicopter it replaces.
But it’s also designed for operations over land (unlike the grey submarine-hunting Merlins the Navy has flown for the past 15 or so years) … and marines fight by land and sea.
Since transferring from the RAF, the helicopters have received a mini upgrade – the Merlin iMk3 (‘i’ for interim) is better suited to supporting the green berets on amphibious operations than the ‘basic’ model thanks to a folding main rotor head, strengthened undercarriage and communications upgrades.
“The iMk3 has a number of modifications to allow us to operate at sea, day and night, as well as the ability to conduct various other tasks such as the fast roping of troops to the deck of a ship on the move,” explained pilot Lt Cdr Alex Hampson.
It plugs the gap until the truly ‘marinised’ version of the battlefield Merlin, the Mk4, is delivered in late 2017. With an enhanced avionics suite, automatic folding main rotor head and folding tail, it’s perfect for operations at sea.
846’s Commanding Officer Lt Col Del Stafford said that the few days embarked on the helicopter carrier would serve the Commando Helicopter Force well: first sea time for the iMk3; first green Merlins landing on assault ship HMS Bulwark; ferrying loads between ships on the move at sea; and air and ground living and working in the confines of a warship.
“The aircrew, engineers and aircraft have been undergoing the transition process from Sea King for several years,” said Lt Col Stafford.
“Even though this short embarkation on HMS Ocean may seem like a relatively minor achievement, it marks an extremely important milestone for all that have been living and breathing Merlin operations for the last few years.”
Lt Cdr Hampson added: “The efforts of so many people involved in the transition are now coming to full fruition as we see the first Merlin iMk3 on the deck of a Royal Navy warship at sea.
“The small team of engineers and aircrew that we brought on board with us understand this perfectly and are rightly proud to be the first to do so.”
Two squadrons of Merlins are assigned to the green berets – 845 NAS will shortly move from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire to Yeovilton – plus reconnaissance Wildcats of 847 NAS.