WHEN TWO BECOME ONE ENGINEERING SUCCESS OF MERLIN TRANSITION

We are currently within what is set to be the biggest shake up of military assets in our lifetime, particularly for the JHC and Fleet Air Arm. With the introduction of the Wildcat, F35, Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers and the handover of Merlin Mk3/3A from the RAF, the winds of change are blowing strong. However even the most technologically advanced, most capable, state-of-the-art assets are worthless without the aircrew, engineers and support personnel that make it possible to operate them.

Notwithstanding the planning, re-organisation and effort required to generate the 37 crews needed to operate the Merlin under a new owner, another challenge has been ensuring that the correct amount of Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP) engineers are available to recover and regenerate the aircraft.

In early 2012 just over 30 engineers, selected from the more experienced elements of the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) Sea King and Royal Navy grey Merlin contingents, made their way to their new home at RAF Benson in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. This marked the beginning of the balancing act of RAF and RN personnel; maintaining suitable levels of experience in all areas whilst keeping the numbers moving towards a RN majority in time for transition.

When multiple organisations come together there is naturally an element of turbulence. For many reasons the RN moving in on ‘RAF turf’ was no exception. It is a huge credit to all those involved that once differences in working practices had been identified, and the language barrier broken down, there has been an ever increasing ‘one in, all in’ attitude as opposed to the ‘us and them’ atmosphere that might have been apparent initially.

It is surprising in our tri-service world of Military Aviation Authority, Continuing Airworthiness Management Organisation and the Duty Holder construct just how different procedures and practices are at the coalface between units, forces and services. It has been a testament to the ‘can do’ mind-set of those involved to see the ’we’ve always done it this way’ attitude ditched in favour of a much more pragmatic approach to finding the most effective way of working rather than the most familiar. The majority of personnel agree that both Services have learned a great deal from each other, but there is always room for improvement.

In recent months some big changes have been implemented including a watch routine alien to RAF Benson (24-about with a night watch) and a trial of the RN style tool control system where entire tool outfits are  allocated to specific airframes, which is different from the current RAF system where individual tools are signed out to a person, not an aircraft.

Looking to the future, 78 Squadron disbanded and 846 Naval Air Squadron stood up on 30th September 2014, coinciding with the handover of Duty Delivery Holder responsibilities and control of the Merlin Force handed to the RN. Many of the personnel necessary for this to happen were already incumbent on the future 846 NAS, with many more occupied on her sister squadron, 28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron. RNAS Yeovilton will see the arrival of the first 846 NAS Merlin aircraft around March 2015 with an Operational Conversion Unit/Flight remaining at RAF Benson. Currently planned for summer 2016 will be the 845 NAS move back to Somerset, taking with them all of the remaining Merlin.

In the meantime AgustaWestland will be looking to start the conversion of some of the existing airframes to HC iMk3 standard; a modification programme that will make the aircraft more suited to embarked aviation. This will include the addition of a folding main rotor head. This programme is set to start towards the end of 2014 with the iMk3 Release To Service to be issued towards the end of 2015, and will provide an interim solution whilst further modifications are made to deliver the Merlin HC Mk4.

With the transfer of ownership of the green Merlin from light blue to dark, it is important to wait two marching paces to appreciate the colossal efforts and tireless hard work that has taken place, and will continue, at every level. We have grown both as individuals and as a force. Personnel on both sides of the handover/ takeover can look back with pride and call upon the experience they have gained during transition to help them wherever the future may take them.

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