On Thursday 26 March 2015 a formation of six Merlins flew from RAF Benson to RNAS Yeovilton, with flypasts along the way over the Salisbury Plain Training Area and the AgustaWestland plant in Yeovil. This event formally marked the return home to Yeovilton of 846 NAS from a three year stint based at RAF Benson. Andy Aitchison and Kevin Wills were there for GAR.
The homecoming highlighted the Squadron’s ongoing transition from the Sea King HC4 to the AgustaWestland Merlin Mk3, the latter formerly operated by the RAF.
Lt Col Derek Stafford MBE RM, Commanding Officer of 846 Naval Air Squadron said,
“I am deeply honoured and truly humbled to be not only the first Commanding Officer of the Squadron in the Merlin era, but also to have the privilege of leading the return of the Squadron to its spiritual home at RNAS Yeovilton.
“Having already proven ourselves in the desert of Jordan in the autumn of 2014 and the Arctic in 2015, the immediate future will see the Squadron maintaining a ‘Very High Readiness’ posture for contingent operations around the globe, and being at the forefront of a force-wide reinvigoration of expertise in the maritime environment. These challenges will be met with the same qualities of determination, professionalism and cheerfulness in the face of adversity that were displayed by our forebears, are encapsulated in the ‘Junglie’ ethos, and endure as the hallmarks of the Squadron and its people.“
Captain Niall Griffin, Commanding Officer of the Commando Helicopter Force said:
“The arrival today of six Merlin helicopters of 846 NAS from RAF Benson to RNAS Yeovilton marks another milestone in the transition of the Commando Helicopter Force from the Sea King to the Merlin. Over the next year we will see a gradual build up of Merlins here in Somerset, as we relocate them from Oxfordshire. By Easter next year both front line Merlin squadrons, 845 NAS and 846 NAS, will be co-located here at RNAS Yeovilton, once more being reunited with 847 NAS, now flying the Wildcat, the Combat Service Support Squadron and the Force Headquarters. This will mark the beginning of a new era in the Commando Helicopter Force’s history as we take forward these new capabilities. Whilst there are clearly exciting times ahead, it is important to look back on the aircraft which the Merlin replaces. When the Sea King Mk4 retires next March, it will have been in service for some 37 years, serving in more Operational Theatres than any other Fleet Air Arm aircraft.
“The Force is currently very busy having just recovered from training in Norway, and preparing for a major international exercise, Joint Warrior, all around the UK this Easter. Looking further ahead to the Autumn, CHF will be participating in the Royal Navy’s Flagship deployment to the Mediterranean, COUGAR 15, as well as training with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in the Mojave Desert, California. Both represent excellent training and will continue to keep us at Very High Readiness as a Force.”
846 Naval Air Squadron has a long and proud history and since its establishment in April 1943 it has supported operations across the world, from Borneo, where the Commando Helicopter Force earned the moniker ‘Junglies’, through to Afghanistan. One key figure throughout the conversion process for the engineering and ground crew of 846 Squadron has been Warrant Officer Steve Wood whose vital contribution was recently recognized with the award of an MBE.
The Commando Helicopter Force’s transition from the Sea King HC4 to the Merlin will continue at RAF Benson when 845 Naval Air Squadron stands up in place of 28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron RAF in May 2015. When fully operational, 845 NAS will return home to Yeovilton to reunite all the CHF Squadrons. When 845 moves to Benson, 848 Squadron – formerly the Sea King training squadron – will stand up once more to take the remaining Sea King HC4s out of service.
The flypast actually consisted of five Fleet Air Arm aircraft and one which remains with 28(AC) Squadron RAF (ZJ994 – one of the aircraft acquired from Denmark). This was borrowed for the day as two of the airframes allocated to 846 are currently in the Merlin Depth Maintenance Facility at RNAS Culdrose and a third – ZJ120, the original Westland demonstrator – is currently based out of Culdrose. It is being used on sea trials with RFA Lyme Bay, crewed by a team from Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron (RWTES) and QinetiQ engineers, based at MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Working on board RFA Lyme Bay they have been checking that the safety clearances, already in place for the Mk2 Merlin are similarly valid for the Mk3, and it is safe to operate at sea. This is said to be the first time the Mk3 has operated at sea.
Already a proven platform, the marinisation programme, currently due to complete in February 2016, will see the Merlin Mk3 equipped with a folding main rotor head and a modified undercarriage for deck landings.
The Merlin will ensure the Commando Helicopter Force continue to successfully support the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the Joint Helicopter Command for decades to come.
GAR would like to thank the CHF, RNAS Yeovilton and Andy Aitchison
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