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Merlins arrive home from Iraq to be prepared for Afghanistan

12th August 2009 - 19:30 GMT | by The Shephard News Team


The homecoming of two Merlin helicopters to RAF Benson yesterday marked the end of an era for the Royal Air Force as now all of the Service's aircraft have left Iraq.

And having just returned from a six-year deployment to Iraq, the helicopters will undergo a series of modifications to ensure they are prepared for their next operation in Afghanistan by the end of this year.

The last two Merlins flew back to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire yesterday, Tuesday 11 August 2009, to be met at the station by Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, alongside friends and families in a homecoming ceremony.

Merlin and Puma Force Commander and RAF Benson Station Commander Group Captain Jon Burr said: "The Pumas have played an active role in Iraq since 2003, to be joined by the Merlins two years later. The Merlin made its name in casualty evacuation, carrying out daring rescues in a hostile environment to rescue British and coalition lives. It's been a big commitment for the personnel of RAF Benson. Some staff have been deployed in Iraq several times over, which combined has added up to almost two years of their lives spent in Iraq.

"I'd like to salute the courage, skill and commitment of all RAF Benson personnel who have served so valiantly in Iraq, to help make a better life for the Iraqi people."

Wing Commander Nigel Colman, Officer Commanding 78 Squadron, of which the Merlins were a part, said: "It's fantastic to bring home the squadron. We faced quite varied and significant challenges in Iraq, on an operation which has at times involved intense war-fighting. Now we're able to prepare for and be completely focused on Afghanistan."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: "The Merlin and Puma forces have played a hugely important role in our operations in Iraq and I would like to thank all those involved, as well as their families and friends for the strong support they have given over the last six years. We can all be incredibly proud of their achievements and Iraq today is a better place thanks to their outstanding service, commitment and sacrifice."

Now all RAF aircraft have left Iraq, the Service is concentrating on getting all available equipment to the troops in Afghanistan to provide additional support in the form of Puma, Lynx and Merlin helicopters, each of which will offer additional capabilities to the existing International Security Assistance Force kit already being used in theatre.

Deputy Commander Joint Helicopter Command, Air Commodore Simon Falla, said: "At the moment we have Apache doing the Ground Fire Support role out in Afghanistan, principally supporting other helicopters and protecting troops on the ground. The principal troop carrier is the Chinook and also deals with CASEVAC [casualty evacuation] and I'd like to think that we have a world-beating capability with this aircraft in that role.

"We've got Sea King helicopters out there doing what we call Command Support, in other words they are able to take round small groups of people, principally commanders, and get them round the battlefield. Mobility around the battlefield is pretty important and that's the kind of role they're getting into.

"Our Lynx aircraft are worked with seasonally. They are built for a temperate environment, they're not well suited to the hot weather in Afghanistan, but in the winter they can work and so from September they'll be out there. They work in an escort role, again escorting transport helicopters and offering mutual support, in other words looking after another helicopter as a pair. And Merlin will be going out at the end of the year to do the troop transport role.

"In Kenya we've deployed our Puma helicopters who have also recently returned from Iraq, principally to do Army training; they work in a troop transport role so they're out there to train the Army. And Lynx helicopters will be going out there to do their pre-deployment training in Kenya."

Mr Ainsworth stressed that the Merlin helicopter will be a massive boost to UK troops currently serving in Afghanistan. He said: "It's a well armoured aircraft. It's served in Iraq very successfully for the last few years and we are spending money on its protection as well as its lift capability before we send it out to Afghanistan. I am confident that this helicopter is perfectly capable of the job that we're giving it to do in Afghanistan.

"The Merlin has a long range so, with the great distances that there are in Afghanistan, in Helmand, it will be ideally suited by the time we've done our modifications for that theatre. When people see the Merlin arrive they'll know that there is additional support there.

"The Merlin being finished in Iraq means that we can now reconfigure it, get it fit and get it out to Afghanistan.

"We have work going on to see if we can increase the number of Chinooks that we've got out in theatre.

"We're going to upgrade the Lynx to make sure it can fly all year round in the hot circumstances of Afghanistan. So, this is part of an ongoing process. We've doubled the number of helicopter hours and the Merlin gives us the opportunity to get even more helicopter hours to our troops. Mostly it's going to be used for lifting and for transporting troops around, moving people around in theatre."

With the Merlins returned to their hangars at RAF Benson, preparation for their mission to Afghanistan has already begun. The modifications include new rotor blades, improvements to the Defensive Aid Suite which protects the aircraft from threats on the ground, as well as ballistic protection.

Wing Commander Ross Richards who oversees training on the Merlins said: "Afghanistan and Iraq are very different theatres, so we've got a series of modifications to make to enable the aircraft to cope with the different conditions and threats they will face in Afghanistan.

"When you add the heat and the increase in altitude together, the aircraft has to work harder - the air is thinner and they have to work closer to the edge of their performance envelope.

"We're working hard and are on track to deploy the required number of aircraft by the end of the year. By the end of the year we should see Merlins in Afghanistan."

It's not just the helicopters which have to prepare for life in Afghanistan as many of the engineers who returned from Iraq will travel with the Merlins too.

Flight Lieutenant Ross Norman said that the change in theatres may prove challenging: "The main element will be handling the aircraft at that height," he said. "In Iraq the areas we were working in were mostly flat deserts and open land or urban areas - Afghanistan is very different."

The helicopter squadron will now take part in a four-month training exercise in America to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan later this year.

Mr Ainsworth added: "I have been extremely impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of everyone here at RAF Benson who are busting a gut to get these helicopters ready for their next challenge. They know, as I do, that additional helicopters in Afghanistan will help us to achieve more and achieve it faster."

By UK Ministry of Defence


The Shephard News Team


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