847 NAS Deploy to Afghanistan
After months of meticulous preparation and training, 847 NAS, under the command of Lt Col Nick Venn RM, deployed to the US Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro in California for the final stages of their pre-deployment training prior to their departure to Afghanistan, their third deployment in four years.
The squadron has fully converted to the Lynx Mk 9A which has new more powerful engines that provide an all year round capability with little degradation in performance due to extreme temperatures. Along with the performance upgrade, the GPMG has been replaced with the 0.5 inch M3M Browning, which has a longer range, improved accuracy and multi-role ammunition. This weapon, combined with the MX-10 surveillance camera system, has already provided a significantly enhanced capability to provide support to other UK helicopters and troops operating in the province.
The Lynx Mk 9A aircraft, which are owned by the Army (hence the words Army written on the aircraft) commenced initial preparation for desert flying operations. After completing the mandatory 48 hour acclimatisation period, PDT and MST, both aircrew and engineers familiarised themselves with the extremely inhospitable environment.
Lt Col Venn said, “The training in El Centro is an essential component of our PDT as it allows both the aircrew and engineers to operate the Lynx in a hot and mountainous desert environment that is very comparable to that of Afghanistan. When we deploy to Helmand we will provide high-readiness support to UK and coalition forces, predominantly in the over-watch and reconnaissance roles.”
During some well deserved down-time, personnel took time out to help distribute food and hygiene parcels in the Imperial Valley area. The event was organized by the international charity Feed The Children, through their programme: Americans feeding Americans. Over 400 pre-identified families received a 25lb box of food and a 10lb box of personal care items; the boxes are designed to help a family of four for up to one week.
Lt Keith Adams RN said: “It was a privilege to be able to provide a helping hand with such a worthwhile charity.” He added, “It was a real eye opener to see how many people were in need of these charitable donations.”
PO Will Brooks said: “On hearing of all the positive feedback the feed the children programme achieves within the local communities we have been working in whilst based in El Centro, it made it a pleasure to volunteer my spare time to help.”
Lt Jared Smith USN, Command Chaplain NAF El Centro said: “As the Command Chaplain, I would like to express my gratitude to the Royal Navy for the contributions it has made in the support and service it has provided to our local community. Located in the Imperial Valley of California, our base is surrounded by some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the US. The many hours of lifting boxes of food has lifted the spirits of countless local families as they struggle in this difficult economic climate. Whether fighting the war on terrorism or doing battle in the war on hunger, the Royal Navy and the US Navy are working together to make the world a safer and better place for all.”
After a gruelling month long training package in the hot and arid deserts of California, it was time for 847 NAS personnel to pack up all their belongings, along with their aircraft, for their 6,000 mile return journey to the rather damp, cold and somewhat bleak environment that is Somerset and RNAS Yeovilton.
Returning the aircraft and support equipment to the UK proved to be a challenge for the engineers. Fitting all four aircraft into the hold of the Antonov 124 looked an extremely difficult and daunting task but with considerable precision and skill they managed to gently manoeuvre their treasured aircraft into the available space.
Lt Cdr Graeme Spence, Senior Pilot on 847 added. ‘The training in the USA has now provided the Sqn the essential fighting skills required when they deploy to Afghanistan and we have all appreciated the quality of the training that El Centro provided. The challenging conditions at the base tested many of the Junglies’ skills and, from an aircrew perspective, were able to understand how they and their aircraft performed in the intense hot and dusty environment.’
In January as the personnel from 847 NAS deployed to the battlefield of Afghanistan it was the beginning of an end of an era for their trusted Lynx helicopters. On the Sqn’s return to RNAS Yeovilton the veteran Lynx aircraft will be replaced with the military’s most advanced fleet of Wildcat combat helicopters.
When deployed in Afghanistan the squadron will be based at Camp Bastion where the tour is expected to last about five months. Its aircraft will carry out essential surveillance and reconnaissance missions while also supporting ground troops.
Lt Col Nick Venn RM, CO of 847 NAS, said: “In many ways it is the end of an era as the Lynx has served us and the Army so well since the 1970s. The variant we are taking over to Helmand is the Lynx Mk 9A, which is optimised to deal with harsh conditions such as the heat, dust and mountain ranges in Afghanistan. It is ideal for the environment and the boys and girls of this squadron have been training really hard over the past few months to prepare themselves for Theatre. We’re really excited that when we return around May time we will be the first to work with the new Wildcats. They are incredible machines.”
One of the Lynx teams now deployed consists of Lt Alex Lovell-Smith RN, Air Engineering Technician Tom Wallis and L/Cpl Ross Howling. It will be L/Cpl Howling’s second tour of Afghanistan, but for his comrades it will be their first.
“You do build up an attachment to the aircraft,” said Lt Lovell-Smith. “The Lynx continues to serve the Armed Forces extremely well and will be missed. But we are looking forward to the opportunity of being the first to work on the Wildcat as it is always exciting to work on brand new aircraft.”
Why did 847 Sqn go all the way to El Centro in California? It replicates many of the climatic and geographical features that the Sqn will encounter in Helmand Province and provides excellent value in terms of training. Like El Centro, the base at Camp Bastion is high above sea level and the air can be extremely hot and dusty in the summer and also extremely cold when operating in the mountainous regions in the winter. The locality in which the Lynx Mk9A helicopter will be operating will no doubt challenge both aircrew and ground crew alike from the battle hardened Helicopter Instructors and particularly the inexperienced aviators and engineers.
El Centro also provided easy access to a number of outstanding firing ranges, unlike anything available in the UK, where the air door gunners can hone their airborne gunnery skills with the 0.5 inch M3M Browning, a weapon that has a longer range, improved accuracy and uses a variety of multi-role ammunition. The Sqn also managed to squeeze in some mutual training with 42 Cdo who were also conducting PDT at the base.
The Wildcat, built and designed by AgustaWestland in Yeovil, is due to enter active service later this year. It is fitted with more powerful engines so it operates well in extreme heat such as in Afghanistan, where the air is thinner and dustier. The £26 million aircraft has a maximum speed of 181mph and can carry forward-firing rockets, machine guns, door-mounted machine guns. RNAS Yeovilton will become the home of the both Royal Navy and Army Wildcat fleets, with a centre-of-excellence training academy.