Gary Parsons reports from RAF Benson as a second Merlin squadron receives its new standard. Pictures by the author, Bob Franklin, Howard Heeley & Gary Stedman
"In a little over six months, we have gone from nothing to a unit that has already participated in operations - indeed, today our personnel are deployed in Iraq" - the words of Wing Commander Nigel Colman, the new Officer Commanding 78 Squadron, which officially 'stood up' at a bright but breezy RAF Benson on 24 January.
In just ten short months since the acquisition of additional Merlin aircraft was announced by Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, on 30 March 2007, 78 Squadron has become an autonomous unit of aircrew and is on course to be a full-strength front-line by the summer. Linked to 78 Squadron's re-birth is the introduction of the Merlin HC3A, with the purchase of six aircraft originally destined for the Danish military.
The six Merlins were acquired from the Royal Danish Air Force under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in June 2007. At the time, Lord Drayson, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, said: "It would normally have taken at least three years to provide these additional aircraft via a conventional route. However, we have taken an innovative approach and, with the assistance of the Danish Government, we will be able to provide a significant boost to our support helicopter force in under twelve months."
"This MoU builds on the announcement made in March and we are now moving the project forward at speed. I am pleased that we have been able to work so effectively with one of our coalition allies to achieve this - I would like to thank the Danish Government for their cooperation." The Ministry of Defence has entered into a £175 million contract with AgustaWestland to produce six new Merlin helicopters for Denmark as replacements for the six transferred.
The first of the six new Merlins arrived at RAF Benson on 31 July, a move that enabled aircrew and groundcrew training to begin. Wing Commander Colman: "We are training crews at present for the new squadron and will split the existing Merlins between the two squadrons. The Mark 3As are like our Mark 3s but with enhancements, such as new rotors and greater range, improving the capability still further." The two Marks are substantially different airframes, but in practice the differences will not have a material effect on operations. Sqn Ldr James Ankers, SENGO for the Merlin Force Engineering Squadron explained the differences in more detail: "The Mark 3A has three Rolls Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines, slightly more powerful and with updated avionics, taking out the obsolescence, although performance is much the same. Training for the mechanics is about half a day, that's all - the avionics training is longer at about a week. Although it can't lift as much as the Mark 3, the 3A has an extra fuel tank, so what you lose in lift you gain in range."
Flt Lt Bill Kenrick, one of the senior pilots on the Merlin, has converted to the Mark 3A, a process that takes just a couple of sorties. "The cockpit is slightly more modern, but has the same functionality", he said. "We're changing the DASS suite and intercom pods to match more closely, the seats and harnesses, although we're keeping the ones in the back. Extras you get with the 3A are TCAS, which will be rolled out to the rest of the fleet in time; the weather radar, and a better FLIR setup. At the moment we can use the weather radar, but if it breaks we don't get another one - we're making a case that it is useful on operations. Downsides are a lighter floor and the external hook system, which isn't as capable as the Mark 3." Even so, under-slung loads of up to 4.2 tonnes can be moved, so search and rescue or casualty evacuation roles can be readily undertaken. Although currently equipped with BERP III rotor blades, the Danish aircraft will be the first to receive the BERP IV modification, which will give the Merlin more lift and a greater speed - all twenty-eight Merlins at Benson will eventually be retro-fitted.
As part of the AugustaWestland modification programme, the ex-Danish aircraft will be fitted with a comprehensive Defensive Aids Suite (DASS) including a new missile counter measures system and improved ground communications using the BOWMAN system. Four Merlin Mk 3As are currently at AgustaWestland undergoing this modification, leaving two for crew training at Benson. It's been quite a complicated movement of aircraft since the first was delivered last July - the first two were straightforward Danish Multi-role Helicopters (DMRH) and were repainted in the standard RAF Olive Drab for air and ground crew training to commence. "They were the baseline standard", said Sqn Ldr Ankers; "if you like, the 'L' model." Meanwhile the other four aircraft went to Yeovil for modification, with the last two being released to Benson part-modified so that the first two DMRH aircraft could be returned to Yeovil for full modification. "Aircraft 5 and 6 will go back to Yeovil in May for eight to nine weeks to get the full modification kit once the others have been delivered", said Sqn Ldr Ankers - "then we'll have the full 'GTi' version!"
28(AC) Squadron was the largest squadron in Joint Helicopter Command, with twenty-two aircraft and approximately three hundred personnel. As it was such a large unit, it was decided to create a second squadron shortly after the announcement of the purchase of the ex-Danish aircraft. With 78 Squadron reduced to effectively a Flight status in the Falkland Islands with the withdrawal of its Chinooks, the opportunity was taken to continue its rich heritage with reformation at Benson on 3 December, the Sea Kings at RAF Mount Pleasant becoming 1564 Flight. C Flight of 28(AC) Squadron became A Flight 78 Squadron and immediately set about deploying to Iraq. Sqn Ldr Jack Jewis: "28 Squadron has got two operational flights and the OC(F), and we have two operational flights and the training flight, but we will become three operational flights in time."
"We deploy as 1419 Flight - the rotation will be 78 A Flt, 78 B Flt, 28 A Flt then 28 B Flt and cycle back round. Each flight has six crews of four, plus there are five or six in the Training Development Flight. We have five cabs at the moment in Basrah - we take the aircraft out for a year, as most servicing can be done in theatre, but for the major services we bring them back to Culdrose. We self-deploy - it's a four-day trip and about twenty-six hours flying time, but it also provides good training for the non-deployed crews who do the outbound and return legs. Everybody on the two squadrons will be qualified to fly both marks. The Mark 3A will be pooled across the two units - they'll do exactly the same job, even though the 3A is a different aircraft." Both squadrons' marks are expected to be applied to each Merlin, such as the Sentry AEW1s at Waddington. For the spotters out there, the serials of the HC3As are ZJ990, ZJ992, ZJ994, ZJ995, ZJ998 & ZK001. 78 Squadron is hoping to become a member of the NATO Tiger Association now that it is back in Europe, joining 230 Squadron in the rotary category.
UK Merlins have been operating in desert environments such as Iraq since 2005 and have exceeded every expectation of performance, reliability and availability - the Mark 3A should continue that trend, although it won't be seen in its trendy metallic-green DMRH colour scheme, which doesn't meet RAF operational requirements.
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, addressed the 78 Squadron parade: "The buying of the six aircraft from the Danish Air Force has been done in a very imaginative way, and very quickly. When we are so reliant on capability, it will give us a real boost in that capability. There will be lots of challenges ahead both here at Benson and, more crucially, on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."