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Merlin watching...Watching with Eagle's Eye

Roger Cook, Pynelea Photo Bureau takes a week out to fly on exercise with the RAF and Army - it's a hard life!

Exercise 'Eagle's Eye' took place from 13 to 19 October over the Salisbury Plain area. By courtesy of 16 Air Assault Brigade, your correspondent was fortunate, and privileged, to spend a week with the Army and Royal Air Force to observe how this exercise progressed and to photograph the aircraft in action.

The scenario for the exercise was that in the 'African' state of Kamila rebels had seized power and declared the 'Peoples Republic of Bantu'. The British troops were called in to oust the rebels and to secure the sovereignty of the country and to protect the vital assets which included three diamond mines in the east of the territory.

Over Westlands at YeovilMonday 13 October saw 28 Squadron already relocated from Benson in Oxfordshire to a temporary airfield, established on the old airfield at Barton Stacey alongside the A303, with a landing ground for four Merlin HC3 helicopters, radio communications, a mobile operations centre, and tented living accommodation with a well set up field kitchen (I can vouch for the excellence of the meals served). A number of training exercises were flown from this location each day including one back to Benson to provide experience for one crew of lifting an underslung loan. On Tuesday 14 October I joined the crew aboard ZJ125 'Juliet' to fly a two ship low level formation exercise in the company of ZJ133 'Romeo'. Flying with the callsigns 'Cauldron' 2 and 3, the exercise was a low level flight to Warminster, with a landing on a sports field, where a two minute trail would be established to allow for practice ILS approaches into Bristol Airport. At Bristol the lead Merlin waited on the ground for the second aircraft to catch up to continue in low level formation back to Barton Stacey. On the return journey simulated radio communications failure was carried out by the lead Merlin and a simulated identified hostile ground threat was called that required some very lively manoeuvering by both aircraft. Tuesday afternoon saw three Merlins fly to South Cerney to allow the flight crews to attend a briefing for the exercise and the opportunity was taken to give flight safety briefings to the Army personnel who would be airlifted to forward positions later in the week.

In the field
Refuelling at Barton Stacey
On the ramp at Lyneham
In the field at Keevil
Rapid offload
Chinook at Keevil
Puma at Keevil
Merlin haulin' ass
Troopship too
SFOR Merlin ZJ122

Getting ready for the drop - not for the claustrophobic!There are some features of the Merlin that are not yet fully cleared for service use but it was clear that the crews of 28 Squadron are already more than happy with their new toys. With its vibration reduction system, the Merlin provides a smooth ride at low level with very acceptable noise levels within the cabin - these features will certainly be appreciated by any soldier being carried into battle. Although not armed, at least not yet, the Merlin does enjoy some very sophisticated protection equipment including RWR and chaff and flare dispensers. With the US expressing serious interest in the aircraft, with the possibility of one for the Presidential fleet, 28 Squadron will shortly be taking two aircraft to the USA for trials by the US military.

On Wednesday 15th I moved to RAF Lyneham with the intention of flying in a C-130 to photograph a parachute drop over Salisbury Plain. Unfortunately, although the weather was otherwise good, the drop was called off because of high blustery winds at the drop zone. I made use of my time by taking ground shots of the C-130s that were scheduled for the para drop, a mixture of C-130Ks and C-130Js. I was surprised to see quite a few C-130Js elsewhere with The drop is cancelled - disappointment all roundengines removed and I was told that the RAF is experiencing problems with the turbines of the Allison turboprop engines to such an extent that, by the end of the 2003, the fleet will be short by 54 engines! Certainly enough to ground a substantial number of C-130Js. Under the contract between the MoD and Lockheed Martin it is Lockheed's responsibility to come up with a fix to stop the turbines from burning out.

Thursday saw me back at Lyneham again for the para drop scheduled for midday. The early drop at 0700 had gone ahead and there were high expectations that the midday one would also take place. This involved a mixed formation of seven C-130J/Ks for a low-level run out to North Devon and return for a drop at the Everleigh drop zone on Salisbury Plain. I boarded the third aircraft in the formation, a C-130J ZH876 callsign 'Griffin 3'. This aircraft was to drop about eighty fully equipped soldiers with the brief that they must be on the ground 'ready to fight'. The aircraft was also to drop equipment from a 'wedge'. This consisted of a paletted load on rollers mounted on a wedge shaped platform on the rear loading ramp of the Hercules. The wedge was to go first immediately followed by the troops in three sticks on three runs by the formation. To see the aircraft loaded with the men with parachutes, their bergens piled high under a cargo net towards the rear of the aircraft and the wedge load on the rear ramp made me realise just how hard everyone was working to ensure that the right load was dropped at the right time at the right place.

XV303 lands at KeevilAt twenty minutes to the drop timethe bergens were taken out from the netting and distributed to the men along the aircraft. This required each man to stand and fold the bench seats out of the way. The bergens were strapped on and would be lowered just before each man hit the ground. The chains securing the wedge load were also removed and stowed away. At about ten minutes before the drop the rear door and both side doors were opened and the jump steps put in place. From where I was positioned near to the rear ramp this certainly provided adequate ventilation but also provided me with an excellent view, although somewhat limited by the wedge, of the following four Hercules. The minutes were counted down and everyone was working smoothly as a well drilled team. The troops stood in the doorways and the Loadmaster was ready to cut the final restraining strap that would allow the wedge to roll off the back. At thirty seconds to the drop it was called off because of out of limit winds on the DZ! The let down by all was easily felt on board but this was the signal for a very busy time by the loading crew to attempt to find some space on the floor for each soldier to sit down on his bergen while all of the doors were shut and the wedge load was made secure. As an observer, it was easy to feel so sorry for everyone who had put so much effort into making this work. But, such is the nature of an exercise and the troops still had to be delivered to right place if the rebel faction was to be removed from power. The men were eventually moved by road to the Everleigh DZ.

Tanks offload at KeevilBy the time that I arrived at the forward operating base on Friday morning the airfield had been taken back out of rebel hands and secured by the British troops. This FOB was situated on Keevil Airfield and once the early morning fog had lifted men and materials could be moved forward from Everleigh. This was carried out by Merlins bringing men and light underslung loads, Chinooks, with more troops and the heavier vehicles and artillery, and C-130K Hercules aircraft with a rapid offload of vehicles and troops. This continued throughout the day with each aircraft making a number of round trips. By evening all troops were firmly bedded in ready for the final push on the next day with an airlift and further para drops onto the Fox Covert DZ.

Going home - it's been a long day!My verdict? A very impressive show of teamwork between everyone involved and a demonstration of just how rapidly a brigade can be moved to be on the ground 'ready to fight'. Some of the soldiers that I spoke to had very little sleep in the previous 48 hours yet all were in good humour and many took the opportunity during a brief lull on the Friday afternoon to enjoy the autumn sun.

Merlin's duskWith acknowledgement and thanks to Captain Steve Vaid, Flight Lieutenant Mark Taylor and the personnel of 28 Squadron and TALCE, RAF Lyneham.


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