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Royal Marines' new battlefield helicopter tries its hand over the ocean

Posted 16 June 2017 · Add Comment

The new wings of the Royal Marines - the Wildcat AH1 - have been dipping their toe in the water for the first time, supporting the biggest naval war games of the year.

Courtesy Royal Navy / MoD Crown Copyright

Designed to support commandos on the battlefield, the Wildcat AH1 has switched places with its naval counterpart at short notice to work with frigate HMS Iron Duke on Baltops 2017.

With the Navy's Wildcat force still converting to the new helicopter from the recently-retired Lynx and flights heavily committed around the globe, the marines were asked to plug the gap.

The £27 million helicopter was one of more than 50 Allied aircraft buzzing in Baltic skies for the US-led exercise, whose fortnight run ends today.

It's one of two variants of the Wildcat operated by Britain's Armed Forces: a battlefield reconnaissance (and, when new missiles are introduced at the turn of the decade, tank-busting) version for the Army and Royal Marines; and a submarine and surface-ship-hunting version for the Fleet Air Arm to operate on British frigates and destroyers.

They are used to operating their Wildcats at sea - but normally from the much larger flight deck of carrier HMS Ocean or the Navy's assault ships.

A flight assigned to a warship normally spends six months training for the mission; Capt Ollie Bates and his team were given just five weeks to prepare for the short but important stint aboard Iron Duke.

After a dash across the North Sea and through the western Baltic, followed by a quick pre-exercise get together for many of the participants in the Polish city of Szczezin before the first week of eye-opening intensive training with many of the 50 warships and submarines committed to Baltops by more than a dozen nations.

"It was a week-along epic that saw the ships dashing around the high seas conducting all manner of naval war-fighting manoeuvres," said Capt Bates.

He, his pilot and aircrewman were tested in anti-surface warfare, artillery spotting as 4.5in shells from Iron Duke crashed down on the ranges as NATO tried to maintain an uneasy peace between the hostile (fictional) nations of Bothnia and Torrike.

The helicopter largely took a back seat in the concluding exercise, where Iron Duke joined the forces of evil - the Bothnian Navy - and attempted to provoke NATO forces to attack, sparking all-out (mock) war in the Baltic.

For the 847 fliers, the second week of Baltops was especially eye-opening. The Wildcat conducted several sorties - all of them at sea; the crew never even got a whiff of sand on a beach and were very much out of their comfort zone.

"Operating up to 60 miles from a warship, we looked far beyond their horizon to provide Iron Duke with long-range situational awareness, all the while never seeing the land - a truly unnerving feeling," said Capt Bates.

"For the land-centric aviators of 847 this was a distinctly unique experience that was challenging and rewarding.

“Perhaps now that the concept of putting an 847 detachment on board a small ship has been tested it is that we will see more of in the future.

"We played in a new, bigger pond with its unfamiliar ways and we proved that they should be there."

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