After receiving a little tip-off about an upcoming movement at his local, Karl Drage headed off to Sywell Aerodrome near Northampton in the hope of catching a Royal Air Force Merlin HC3 in the snow.
The latest dumping of snow to hit the UK once again clashed with the weekend, meaning the potential for capturing any military aircraft in it was immediately reduced. Geoff Hibbert and I had toyed with the idea of heading out for the day on Monday, but after launching an appeal on Facebook on Sunday night, it became clear that many places were once again snowless…. Consequently, we decided to give it a miss. That was until I received a text from my good friend, MACr Gareth Attridge, currently a member of the RAF’s Presentation Team, advising that he would be stopping by Sywell with a Merlin a little later in the day. In a previous life, Gareth was a Crewman on the Merlin Force, and this would almost certainly be the last time he’d ever get to fly on the type (although Gareth Stringer and I have heard that before!!). Having not seen him for an age, and with my back garden still covered with snow, I simply had to pop along and see him and, indeed, ‘it’.
Driving out of the village, the odd drift at the side of the road aside, I was quite surprised by just how little snow remained – there were a few fields that were completely free of it – and I wasn’t sure whether I’d get any snowy Merlin pictures at all!
Fortunately on arrival, Sywell was probably as snowy as anywhere in the locality. As I sat and waited, the sun even put in an appearance, making it feel quite pleasant through the windows. Outside was very different, however. It was blowing a gale and was absolutely Baltic! Nothing else was flying, apart from the Police helicopter, which was on a shout near Northampton.
Before too long, ‘Vortex 783’ called up and reported that they were seven miles to the south east at low-level. Tower gave them their clearances, and sure enough, the Merlin popped into view on the eastern boundary, putting down on a taxiway before taxying on to the refuelling platform. Typically, the corridor of blue skies had long since given way, and the light wasn’t the best….
The original plan had been for the refuel to be ‘engines off’, but a lack of time meant it had to become ‘hot’ (engines running), which created a few issues I’d not foreseen when sorting out hot coffees for the very appreciative crew! (apparently it was quite cold up there!) In the left-hand seat was Sqn Ldr Kev Harris DFC, who some of you may remember was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as a Flt Lt in Iraq. You can read about the story of his award here: http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafbenson/newsweather/index.cfm?storyid=33B396E9-1143-EC82-2E1E6E8AD78F3871
Sqn Ldr Harris, who is now Officer Commanding of 78 Sqn’s B Flight, was joined up front by Sqn Ldr Toby Sawbridge – the Acting Officer Commanding 28 (AC) Sqn – while in the back were Flt Sgt Richie Richardson – 78 Sqn’s Crewman STANO (STANdards Officer) – Sgt Daz Watts & Sgt Tom Hall. It’s worth noting that this was the first time that Gareth had flown with Sqn Ldr Harris since the missions that led to his DFC in Iraq.
The stop off at Sywell came mid-way through a seven-hour sortie that was aimed at providing pre-deployment training (PDT) as well as serving as a Crewman STANO check. The ‘cab’ had already visited Manston in Kent for fuel, where it was met by a team from the nearby Airfix/Hornby factory who had brought with them some gifts featuring the brand new 1:48 scale Merlin HC3 model that has recently been released. After Sywell, they headed to RAF Shawbury for some real snow landings and then carried out some NVG (Night-Vision Goggles) work on their way back to RAF Benson, some pictures of which you can see in the gallery at the bottom, courtesy of Gareth’s camera.
It was great to see him again, albeit only briefly, and to get the Merlin in the snow was certainly a first for me.