2009 Articles

SEP 25 2009
Merlin Force - Exercise Merlin Vortex

The outside air temperature on the airfield is rising towards 40 degrees C, but despite the sweltering heat the Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOTs) are dressed from head to toe in desert camouflage fatigues, topped off with gloves, scarves and goggles - all vital to protect themselves in this hostile environment. Consisting of an RAF team leader and an Army signaller, the MAOTs wait alongside some vital supplies which require transportation to troops at another location.

Through the shimmering heat haze, a pair of RAF support helicopters approach, smartly in trail. As the lead aircraft gets close to the first load of supplies, it descends and slows, reaching a hover just a few feet above the package and causing a huge cloud of dust to envelop it. This cuts down visibility for the crew and indeed the MAOTs who are now being buffeted by the rotorwash and pelted with dust, stones and debris.

Despite these discomforts, the MAOTs immediately reach up and attach the load to the underside of the helicopter. Their job done, they quickly move to the second load as the lead helicopter pulls in power and climbs away, lifting the load with it and clearing the area to allow the second aircraft in to repeat the process. With the second load attached and the second helicopter also climbing away, the supplies are on their way to their destination. The entire process of attaching two under-slung loads takes less than three minutes.

This is a scenario played out at locations in Afghanistan on a daily basis, with troops relying on helicopters to deliver all manner of supplies to forward bases. Today however, rather than Helmand, this particular scene took place in the friendlier skies of Southern California, where the RAF Merlin Force is currently intensively preparing for their forthcoming deployment in support of Operation HERRICK.

For the past four and a half years, the RAF Merlin Force has been successfully deployed to southern Iraq as part of Operation TELIC. This presented enormous challenges for a relatively new type and the people that operate it, but it has also meant that a large amount of experience was built up in a short time. This has prepared the Merlin Force well for Afghanistan, however, there were still some elements missing from the experience, and an overseas deployment was needed to provide training in a more representative environment to that which will be encountered during Operation HERRICK.

Group Captain Jonathan Burr DFC is the Station Commander at RAF Benson, the home of the RAF Merlin Force, and also a very experienced helicopter pilot in his own right. Having previously flown the Chinook, he is a veteran of several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and he received his decoration during operations in Kosovo in 1999. We sat down in the air conditioned comfort of the Blue Angels display team’s brand new winter training facility at NAF El Centro, California to talk about the reasons for being there and how the training is benefiting the force as a whole.

“The Merlin Force has been used to operating in southern Iraq, specifically Basra, which is very hot, dusty and sandy but in the majority at sea level, so we were trying to find somewhere where we could get some hot and high environmental training, and which would also allow us the freedom to be able to operate in different areas.

“We looked at different options and the best option for us was somewhere on the west coast of the US. After a recce in June, we felt El Centro seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It’s a superb facility in that it’s almost ready made for a ‘plug and play’ detachment to go and do training, whether it’s F-18s of the USN, whether it’s US Blackhawks or Seahawks, or even RAF Merlins.”

Certainly the facilities at El Centro are impressive, with extensive ranges nearby encompassing mountainous terrain up to 8-10,000 ft. That, along with the dust and heat mean that in the opinion of Gp Capt Burr it is an accurate depiction of Afghanistan: “I’ve flown a fair bit in Helmand and southern Afghanistan and what I’ve seen here is a good representation of what we might see in that area.”

Once El Centro had been selected as the destination for the detachment, Exercise MERLIN VORTEX was initiated with the first of four Merlins heading out to California at the end of June. The aircraft were transported to El Centro in the same manner that they will be deployed to Afghanistan, and this in itself was a useful learning opportunity.

“In Iraq, we flew the aircraft there and flew them back. We’re not going to do that in Afghanistan we’re going to put them in the back of a C-17. The Merlin force is not as used to breaking aircraft down to go into air transport and rebuilding them afterwards as perhaps the Chinook force, who have been doing it for 25 years. So again, this is good practice for what we will be doing when we go to Afghanistan.”

The detachment at El Centro is under the command of Lt Cdr Neil ‘Charlie’ Parrock RN. The Merlin Force as a whole is part of the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), which is responsible for support helicopters from all three services, so it is fitting that the Detachment Commander has a naval background. Lt Cdr Parrock is responsible for training, development and standards within the Merlin Force.

“I sit underneath the two squadron OCs, and part of my remit is to ensure that the force is trained and capable and maintains currency in all the different environments that we might go to, for instance, arctic, maritime, desert, jungle etc. Desert is broken down into two parts - firstly, what you would normally associate a desert to be, ie flat and sandy. Secondly we have the arid desert of places like Oman, southern California and Afghanistan, where it is very mountainous.

“The current focus is the Afghan desert - mountainous and arid with elements of dust, but in fact in the winter at certain altitudes it does replicate arctic conditions with heavy snow fall.

It has been Lt Cdr Parrock’s job to devise a training program which will prepare the Merlin Force for its forthcoming Afghan debut, “I get everyone for a four week period and the actual training is split into two parts. There’s the Environmental Qualification (EQ) and then the Pre-Deployment Training (PDT) aspects.

“The EQ is to enable someone to safely operate in that environment, so we concentrate on things like general handling skills, mountain flying and mountain transits, under-slung loads, desert landings in dust etc and we superimpose the high density altitude aspects to that, as that obviously has considerations with power and what the aircraft can do.

“We’re also looking at low light levels - Afghanistan does not have a lot of cultural lighting. If the moon is set, then there is no lighting. The night vision devices we wear do not create light and if there is no light, then they don’t produce anything. There are wide open deserts that have no ambient light here, so we can go and train in those and it’s some of the most challenging flying the guys can do.”

The detachment to El Centro has also given the Merlin crews the chance to try out a new system recently added to their inventory, Display Night Vision Goggles (DNVG). The DNVG system uses a monocle which is added over one of the tubes of the traditional NVG. The monocle presents the wearer with a virtual head up display (HUD) meaning that he or she can spend more time looking out of the cockpit, rather than flicking in to look at the instruments.

“It’s actually quite a widely used piece of kit, and very useful as it gives us more ‘heads out.’ It does have its own issues, and takes some getting used to, but once the guys are used to it, it’s awesome.”

Once a crew has finished their EQ training, their period at El Centro culminates in a large scale tactical sortie, as the final item in their pre-deployment training. This generally takes a full day and is an extensive sortie which builds upon what has been learned in the previous couple of weeks.

“For the tactical sortie, we give the crew a big tasking sheet, similar to what they’d expect in theatre and we have role players on the aircraft who can throw in some challenges during the route. These routes include simulated troop and supply pickups, in a variety of terrain and with strict times on target to be achieved.”

For the aircrew, the benefits of being at El Centro are obvious, but the deployed Merlin Force consists of many more people - engineers, logisticians, planners etc. For them the benefits are less obvious but no less important. At RAF Benson, the Forward Supply Wing (FSW) is responsible for the engineering and logistical support for the Merlin Force. The Officer Commanding FSW is Wg Cdr Ross Richards and he agrees that the detachment to El Centro has been invaluable.

“Firstly I think it’s pretty representative out here of what the guys will face out in Afghanistan. From an engineering perspective, the challenges on the aircraft are heat and dust, which is all pervasive and represents challenges over and above normal maintenance of the aircraft.

“How is that different to ops in Iraq? I think you tend to suffer more from dust ingress into the aircraft, whether it be into the cockpit or into components.”

With much of the training involving desert landings by day and night, dust presents a constant headache for the engineering team, which manifests itself in several ways.

“We’re seeing dust cause erosion of rotor blades, both main and tail. The BERP3 blades we have fitted here are pretty robust and hold out quite well, but due to the high number of desert landings they are taking a bit of punishment. That requires a lot of maintenance effort to keep on top of things. The simplest thing we’re finding is reapplying aerosol paint to the blades to provide a sacrificial layer of protection, and it’s almost a daily activity, however I don’t think we will see that level of erosion in theatre because of the concentrated effort of doing a high number of desert landings here.”

The best way to deal with the dust problem is, it seems, with some fairly low tech cleaning techniques.

“Keeping on top of things is the way to go. You have to constantly keep on top of it otherwise very quickly you get a huge build up of accumulated dust and sand all over the aircraft. This is damaging to components, so the boys and girls have to spend a lot of time doing basic husbandry on the aircraft to keep on top of it. There is a real challenge there, just to do simple, relatively mundane stuff such as brushing centre consoles down, hoovering out dust, cleaning the components and that sort of stuff. It’s mundane and manpower intensive but vital.”

Heat also presents challenges. Like all modern aircraft, the Merlin is reliant on a suite of complicated avionics, all of which function best in a cool environment.

“With regard to the heat side of things, clearly you are operating avionics systems and components at the edge of their cleared temperature limits. Aircraft sitting out on the dispersal in sunlight clearly adds to that - outside air temperature might be quite high anyway, but add that to being heat soaked from solar radiation and that can present problems with some of the avionic systems and components.

“Again, we can mitigate against that - if we can provide shade for the aircraft we see a reduction in some of the avionics faults we get on start and improve reliability. Being able to blow cold air over components before start also helps. This is something we’ve seen in Iraq as well, so it’s not new, but it’s something we’ve relearned out here. We will look to carry that forward into Afghanistan, but it’s not necessarily easy to do given the infrastructure we have out there.”

The intention for the detachment is that all current Merlin crews will pass through and receive the requisite training. In addition, a significant proportion of the Merlin Force engineering team will also spend time at El Centro.

“While it has been paramount to get all the aircrew through the detachment, arguably it hasn’t been paramount to get all the engineers through. At a certain level, fixing the aircraft here and fault diagnosing here is the same as doing it back in the UK, but we have rotated quite a number through. By the time we have finished, we’ll have probably got about half the current squadron strength through.”

There are however important benefits for those who are responsible for managing the engineering team.

“It’s a really good proving ground, especially for the NCOs and Engineering Officers who are making decisions. We’ve had challenges with aircraft becoming unservicable away from here or having to divert with snags. This is nothing unusual, but because it’s relatively remote and the comms links are a little bit difficult, it has exercised the decision makers as to how they then re-plan to get aircraft allocated to continue to meet important training sorties and simultaneously go and recover the u/s aircraft. This has been challenging for the decision makers in the engineering chain and this provides huge benefits going into the Afghan theatre.

“To summarise, this detachment has been great as it’s given us the opportunity to relearn some of the lessons that we’ve previously picked up in Iraq. There’s not a whole lot out here that we haven’t seen before, but maybe it is accentuated as it is a little bit hotter and we’re working the aircraft quite hard. It distils and concentrates those lessons we’ve learned over the last few years and it just allows us to refocus on how we mitigate these risks once we get into Afghanistan.”

As previously mentioned, the intention of the detachment is that all the operational crews on the Merlin Force will go through the training program during the four months it will run. This means a total of around 40 crews, a number which includes a number of crews from the R&S Wing, which is made up of the Rotary Wing Operational Evaluation & Training Unit (RWOETU) and Support Helicopter Standards & Evaluation Flight (SH STANEVAL).

Gp Cpt Burr is clearly pleased that so many crews will benefit from the training program, which will prepare them in the best possible way for their imminent operational deployment. He also highlights the range of experience levels of his Merlin crews.

“We’ve got a nice selection of those who have maybe 1000-1500 hours including experience in Operation TELIC, through to people who are brand new and everyone is helping each other really. What’s been fantastic is that we have some guys here who have literally just finished the Operational Conversion Flight course last week. They come out here and are straight into “A-level” stuff. It’s a steep learning curve but has been brilliant for them to get hands on time on the aircraft in order to consolidate the good stuff from the conversion course. It also introduces them to how we do business in the sand and the dust and I think it’s been really good for them.”

There’s no doubt that this intensive approach has been difficult to plan and execute and has involved a lot of resources. However, the feeling in the Merlin Force is that the effort has been worth it, and will prepare them well for what they are shortly to face in Afghanistan. Gp Capt Burr is rightfully proud of what his team have achieved in California.

“This is a very intensive package and in order to get everyone through in four months everyone is working extremely hard. The idea is that if we can do that for four months and then go to Afghanistan, then we won’t need to do anything more in terms of additional training until later next year when we need to catch up those who are new to the Merlin Force.

“And so far it appears to be working really well.”

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