Over the second weekend of May, hundreds of young adventurers descended on Dartmoor, embarking on the annual Ten Tors Challenge. As ever, the Armed Forces supported the event en masse, with the Royal Navy deploying its newest Commando Helicopter for the first time. Shaun Schofield reports from a windswept Okehampton Camp.
The Ten Tors Challenge is the largest outward bound challenge for young people in the UK, attracting 2400 14-19 year olds in teams of six from schools and youth groups across the South West, as well as a further 300 youngsters with special or educational needs. Conducted over 35, 45 and 55 mile routes across Dartmoor’s rough, unforgiving terrain, the challenge offers a grueling test of fitness, endurance, navigation and teamwork.
From its South West Headquarters at Okehampton Camp, the 1st Artillery Brigade of the British Army is responsible for the event’s organisation, supplying personnel to manage the ten checkpoints across the courses and ensure the safety of the participants. As a multi-service exercise, under the title of Exercise ARIES TOR, the event provides valuable training to not just the Army, but also the Royal Air Force, who provide further personnel, and especially the Royal Navy, bringing additional manpower and crucial helicopter support.
With such difficult terrain to negotiate, it is imperative that rapid search and rescue and casualty evacuation is available in the inevitable event that participants get into difficulty, be it through injury, dehydration etc. That task has been undertaken by the Royal Navy for many years now, specifically the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), typically deploying two ‘Junglies’ to a Forward Operating Base at Okehampton. With the venerable Sea King HC4 now retired from service, the baton has been passed onto the new kid on the block, the Merlin HC3i.
846 Naval Air Squadron, based at RNAS Yeovilton, currently operates seven of the interim version of the HC3, formerly operated by the RAF. These cabs have had some of the extensive modifications required to upgrade the HC3s so that they are suitable for operations from ships and in support of the Royal Marines, including manual folding main rotor blades, strengthened undercarriage, lashing down points and harnesses for fast roping.
The Merlin will provide the CHF with a mount that is faster than its predecessor, with the ability to carry twice the number of troops twice the distance. Its christening at AIRES TOR would see the type providing the valuable shuttle service between the FOB at Okehampton and the checkpoints across the moor, delivering medical and mountain rescue personnel to those in need, as well as replenishing supplies at these checkpoints as and when needed.
The crews are required around the clock for the duration of the event, which made for a busy Saturday as both cabs flew a whole host of sorties, particularly during the afternoon when several cadets were given the opportunity to enjoy air experience flights when the Merlin’s services were not required elsewhere. If the Merlin has an Achilles heel, however, it is serviceability, with both aircraft being forced out of action early on the Sunday due to technical problems; hardly a smooth introduction to the exercise for the type, but one would assume serviceability will improve once the full complement of aircraft are available to CHF, reducing the demands on the fleet as it stands at the moment.
With these issues in mind, from an enthusiast’s perspective, Saturday was comfortably the pick of the days to observe and photograph these undoubtedly impressive machines in a working environment. With plenty of sunshine bathing the stunning surroundings of the camp, and plenty of sorties to keep one occupied, there are few better places to spend a day with the camera.