Exercise Pashtun Vortex
No-one can say the Merlin Force does not know where to find some summer weather! While the UK was almost underwater with unseasonable downpours, Ex PASHTUN VORTEX was taking place in up to 45°C heat in Jordan. The aim was to provide Desert Environmental Qualifications for 14 Merlin crews; some were to deploy almost directly from Jordan to Ops whilst others were on exercise less than a month after returning to RAF Benson.
Commanded by Sqn Ldr Dave Wilson, JHF(Jordan) was set up to carry out the exercise and comprised up to 140 personnel. Most were from RAF Benson’s 28(AC) and 78 Sqns, and included AAC aircrew and Navy maintainers, supported by elements from Merlin Force HQ and RAF Benson. In addition, a great deal of support was ably provided by Tactical Medical Wing (TMW), 21 and 22 Sigs Regts, Tactical Supply Wing (who set up a FARP in the training area), Mobile Air Operations Teams (MAOTs) and hookers from Joint Helicopter Support Squadron at Odiham, reservists from the Mobile Met Unit and two civilian advisors from Rolls-Royce and Agusta-Westland.
The conditions experienced in Jordan proved identical to those that are faced in our Operational environments in the summer. Temperatures regularly climbed above 40°C and the training area was at 3,000’ above sea level; this enabled the crews to experience cockpit temperatures of 50°C and aircraft performance limitations that are encountered on a daily basis whilst on Ops. The most valuable training, however, was practicing dust landing profiles in representative dust, by day, night and in Red/Black illum conditions. Over 800 dust landings were completed in the course of training which all contribute to aircrew competency and mitigate risk – the main reason we need this dedicated individual training.
Although the flying was the most visible focus of PASHTUN VORTEX, the training for the engineers was invaluable. The harsh conditions provide unique challenges to the aircraft, and those that maintain and repair them. Sand damage to engines, even in the ‘soft’ dust of the Al Humaymah training area, damaged at least two engines and necessitated replacements. The rotor blades require maintenance after every 25 dust landings (which can be completed in one three-hour sortie) to repair blade-tape and this strict husbandry of the blades ensured no damage throughout the exercise. Simple, routine maintenance under the midday sun poses problems when the temperatures of the transmission and engines bays regularly reach 80°C. The avionic faults that the engineers had to valiantly overcome can perhaps be appreciated if you imagine the Merlin is a flying computer, regularly dropped onto the ground in 45°C heat. Such problems need to be experienced before deployment to test and improve manual expertise, engineering skills and the management of personnel working in these conditions. It is testament to the ground crews that they were able to provide sufficient aircraft and hours throughout the Exercise to facilitate such a high tempo of training.
Concurrent to Ex PASHTUN VORTEX were Exercises PASHTUN LINKS and CHARGE; composite Land Forces Exercises providing training across the spectrum of skills required in theatre. They involved detachments from the Mercians, Royal Signals, Royal Engineers, RLC and the Royal Artillery, operating out of FOBs and PBs located throughout the Jordanian desert. Aviation support was provided to the troops by Ex PASHTUN VORTEX whenever training requirements and aircraft availability permitted, and this allowed the troops, and their dogs (with their rather fetching flying goggles) to become more familiar with air operations.
Although the three separate exercises were each providing individual training to their respective force elements it was necessary to maintain a free-flow of information to avoid airspace conflictions with ranges and unmanned aerial systems and enable the best training for all. This required lots of communication and no small amount of Airspace Battle Management on the part of the PASHTUN VORTEX Det Cdr. The Engineers and RLC were also able to give an excellent demonstration of munitions and their effects by safely ‘ruffling the hair’ of a few aircrew in a superb visit to their range. This lead to an improved understanding of each others’ requirements and expertise, and gave a greater appreciation of what can be brought to the table. It also provided an opportunity for personalities to come together before they work side-by-side in theatre.
Ex PASHTUN VORTEX proved to be a truly Joint Exercise and gave the opportunity for the squadrons to assist with real time troop movements and interact with ground elements that will be part of any future Operations. Within the Merlin Force detachment alone personnel from the Army, Navy and RAF worked hard to make the Exercise a success. Such a demonstration of professionalism and cohesion can only bode well for the future deployments of the Force, and for its eventual transition to the Navy.