The Fleet Air Arm squadrons based at RNAS Yeovilton are now well into a period of rapid change and in the near future two of the Royal Navy’s core rotary types will be retired. Andy Aitchison guest reports for GAR.
The Sea King will retire from UK service in early 2016, with the temporary exception of a handful of the ASaC7 “Baggers” based at RNAS Culdrose, while the Lynx will see its final withdrawal take place the following year.
845 Squadron is now the last remaining Commando Helicopter Force (aka The Junglies) squadron still operating the remaining dozen or so green Sea King HC4s, and the last week of January saw 845 Sqn NAS participating in Exercise Merlin Storm 2 on Salisbury Plain.
For the Lynx, following its merger with 702 Sqn last year, 815 is now the last FAA squadron operating the type, and Thursday 29 January 2015 saw a joint Wings Ceremony at RNAS Yeovilton for both 815 and 845 Sqns.
The Wings Parade at RNAS Yeovilton was a sad but proud occasion which saw the graduation of the final six Lynx and Sea King crew members trained by the Fleet Air Arm, symbolising the end of an era. Their wings were presented to them by HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. Prince Andrew is a former FAA pilot himself and flew both the Lynx and Sea King in service, the latter being the ASW variant flown with 820 NAS during the Falklands war. The ceremony was also noteworthy for the graduation of Lt Denise Welch as the very first and last ab initio female Lynx pilot. Although there have been other female Lynx pilots, notably former Black Cat display pilot Lt Becky Frater, Lt Welch is the only female pilot to qualify on the type direct from pilot training.
Two 845 Sqn Sea King pilots gained their wings: Lt Thomas Lofthouse & Lt Matthew Clark, with the distinction of being the very last such Royal Navy pilot to do so falling to Lt Clark.
After the parade concluded there was the customary short flying display by aircraft from both squadrons and a small static display of operational and retired aircraft. The Black Cat display team from 815 Sqn opened proceedings, flying an unmarked aircraft as the last operational Lynx to bear the distinctive Black Cat paint scheme was recently retired. The static display, however, contained an impressive line-up of Lynx variants. Included in that was the current gate guardian from Portland, a former Black Cats Mk3 example, which has been freshly overhauled. The Black Cat display was followed by a role demo by two 845 Sqn Sea Kings, ZA298 – the “King of the Junglies” – and ZA296/Q.
Merlin Storm 2 followed on from a previous exercise undertaken by the Merlin-equipped 846 Sqn NAS last year. However, despite the name, this time the exercise tasked two Sea Kings from 845 Sqn and two AAC Apaches based at Middle Wallop, with a FARP at Rolleston Camp. These aircraft were supporting Zulu Company of 45 Royal Marine Commando. The primary scenarios of the exercise were night insertion ops. More general operations and training were also undertaken during daytime with different crews, including troop transport, winch training and underslung loads (USL).
The exercise precedes 845 Sqn and the Fleet Air Arm’s last major operational deployment with the Sea King. Early April will see 845 Sqn embark four aircraft on HMS Ocean in support of Exercise Joint Warrior 15/1. After more than a decade of land based operations in Iraq & Afghanistan, this is seen by the Junglies as a return to their more traditional role of amphibious assault.
After Joint Warrior concludes at the end of April, the squadron will then finally surrender its R2 Readiness status – in effect standing down the Sea King HC4 as a front line operational asset. From this point on there will be a steady reduction in the remaining dozen HC4 airframes until final retirement in early 2016.
846 Sqn NAS will relocate from RAF Benson back to RNAS Yeovilton during March and April 2015, and May 2015 will see the squadron formally ‘stand up’ at RNAS Yeovilton, by then fully operational with its ex-RAF Merlins. At that point the current plan is that 848 Sqn NAS will be reactivated to take the remaining Sea King HC4s through to retirement.
This will free up 845 Sqn personnel to move to RAF Benson to re-equip with the Merlins of 28 Sqn, RAF. This unit will in turn disband early in 2016 and the Merlin OCU function will be carried out thereafter by 845 Sqn NAS.
The good news is that plans are afoot that should hopefully see the Junglie Sea Kings as active participants in the UK airshow circuit across the summer. However the centrepiece, as always, will be the RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day where the Sea Kings will make their last starring appearance in the superb Commando Assault finale.
Andy Aitchison, and Global Aviation Resource, would like to thank Kerry Randall, Tracey Clempson and Lt Andy McMaster for their kind assistance.
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