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Navy helicopter pilots undertake Arctic training

17th March 2009 - 14:30 GMT | by The Shephard News Team


A team of Royal Navy Sea King pilots have recently been honing their flying and survival skills amid snow and sub-zero temperatures inside the Arctic Circle.

Aircrew from 771 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) based at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose deployed to the Royal Norwegian Air Force Base Bardufoss in North Norway, some 180 miles (290km) inside the Arctic Circle, with two of their Sea King helicopters for winter survival training during January and February 2009.

While the UK struggled to cope with snow and temperatures down to minus 6C, the squadron's two aircraft expected to encounter temperatures down to minus 20C.

At Bardufoss the party's first priority was to conduct Arctic survival training in order to safely operate in the severe winter conditions.

The basic survival course included spending three nights out in the open. On the third night, the aircrew left the relative comfort of their tents and, with temperatures dropping below minus 50C, accounting for wind chill, spent the night in brushwood shelters. The survival instructors maintain that if you can survive in the Arctic, you can survive anywhere.

Temperatures at Bardufoss eventually stabilised around minus 15C resulting in the snow becoming light and powdery, and creating ideal conditions in which to teach helicopter snow-landings.

The snow must be dry and powdery for 'recirculation' to occur. When this happens, snow is raised from the ground around the helicopter then pushed back down on the aircraft in a fountain effect.

The 'fountain' of snow may obscure the aircrew's vision to the point that they are unable to see anything beyond the field of the aircraft's rotors. In such a situation the crew must use a pre-determined visual reference, such as a small tree or a rock close to the aircraft, as a hover reference marker by which to safely navigate to their touch-down point.

Their particle nature means that sand and dust are also prone to recirculation. The lack of visibility caused by snow recirculation is known as 'white-out', while that caused by sand recirculation is 'brownout'.

The lack of vision resulting from white-out and brownout can be very disorienting and flying and landing an aircraft in such conditions requires considerable skill, particularly when using night vision goggles.

Despite having been learned in the frozen Arctic Circle, once mastered, these skills will also help the pilots on deployments in much hotter climes. Royal Navy instructor Chief Petty Officer Aircrewman Jonathon Clarke-Pickering explained:

"The techniques used for flying in sand, snow or dust are very similar," he said. "We train in Norway during the winter months because it's near, there's plenty of snow, and the infrastructure we need is well-established."

Helicopter crews routinely train to deal with recirculation in snowy locations as flying in snow does not cause damage to the aircraft, unlike clouds of sand or dust which are abrasive and erode the rotor blades and engines.

Recirculation is not just a problem for pilots deployed on desert operations or Arctic training exercises. Just before Christmas 2008 one of the 771 NAS aircraft experienced brownout when landing on Penhale beach, Cornwall, during a search and rescue training exercise, so it is important that all Service helicopter pilots are trained to cope with these conditions.

During their recent stint at Bardufoss, the Commanding Officer of 771 NAS, Lieutenant Commander 'Sharky' Finn, and his team of instructors - Chief Petty Officer Aircrewman Jonathon Clarke-Pickering, Lieutenant Commander Steve Hopkins, and Petty Officer Aircrewman Jase Bibby - trained four Navy pilots and eight Observers to fly in extreme winter conditions.

By UK Ministry of Defence

The Shephard News Team


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