RAF Merlin helicopter crews ready for Afghanistan
The first Merlin helicopter crews are ready to deploy to Afghanistan following pre-deployment training in the United States.
The Merlins, from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, will deploy soon and will provide vital support to ground operations and increase the capacity of UK helicopter lift in Afghanistan by a further 25 per cent.
El Centro Naval Base in California is the US Navy’s main training base and has played host to crews from 28 and 78 Squadrons. They have been training for the unique challenges of the Afghan environment: the hot, high and dusty conditions.
The entire fleet is undergoing a £45M upgrade programme that will allow the helicopters to improve performance in the harsh conditions and protect against threats. Modifications include new rotor blades for ‘hot & high’ conditions and improved defensive aids against hostile threats.
Merlins can carry up to 20 personnel and will provide an additional capability to the Chinook and Lynx.
Armed Forces’ Minister Bill Rammell said: “The Merlins will be a welcome addition to the coalition helicopter force in Afghanistan adding to the capacity of our battlefield helicopter capability and increasing its flexibility.”
Commander of the Joint Helicopter Force, Rear Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, said: "Afghanistan presents the most challenging flying environment for helicopters in the world. The high altitude, and temperatures that soar to 50C by day and rarely drop below 35C at night during the summer months, test aircraft to the limit. It has been vital to ensure that the crews are properly prepared in a non-hostile environment. They are now fully ready and eager to support our forces in theatre."
Flight Lieutenant Jim Porter, a pilot on 78 Sqn who spent 3 weeks training at El Centro stated that: “The pre-deployment training opportunity that the exercise has provided is second to none. To operate in an environment that replicates the conditions that we may encounter in Afghanistan so closely, is hugely beneficial to all taking part.”
Master Aircrew Gareth Attridge, a Lead Crewman from 78 Sqn found the training hugely beneficial: “As an instructor, the facilities and environment encountered during the training in El Centro provided a perfect chance to refresh and practise new operational skills. These have been passed on to the Merlin crews who are shortly to deploy to Afghanistan. Combining this training with our previous experiences in Iraq, we feel that we are ready for the challenges that lay ahead.”
Personnel from 78 Squadron are already in Afghanistan preparing for the arrival of the first helicopters, which are due by the end of the year.
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