The Royal Navy’s largest helicopter has debuted on its global patrol ships for the first time, during three days of intensive training in the Caribbean. Commando-carrying Merlin Mk4s touched down on HMS Medway during a concerted period of aviation training for the new patrol ship in preparation for the imminent hurricane season. Medway is currently working side-by-side with support ship RFA Argus which has been deployed to the Caribbean to provide vital aid and assistance to British – and other – citizens in the region should their islands be hit by a severe tropical storm.
Embarked on Argus are specialist Royal Marines and soldiers, equipment and aid, plus one Wildcat and three Merlin helicopters to move personnel and kit around any disaster zone. There’s no helicopter assigned to HMS Medway, but there is a flight deck, allowing the ship to serve as a ‘lily pad’ – hosting helicopters temporarily, refuelling them, giving crews a break, transferring personnel and equipment. The ship is the second of five River-class patrol ships built for long-term operations around the globe, deploying from the UK for years on end and operating from overseas ports and bases under the Royal Navy’s growing Forward Presence programme.
To date the four ships in Royal Navy hands have worked exclusively with the smaller, nimble Wildcat. Merlin is more than twice the weight, can carry 16 commandos/troops, casualties on stretchers and substantial loads both in the back of the cab and slung beneath the 14-tonne helicopter in huge net sacks. As well as landing Merlin and Wildcat, Medway conducted ‘vertical replenishment’ drills – transferring loads between the ship and Argus – and also practised the response of the bridge and flight deck teams to helicopter emergencies in what was a hugely successful three days of flying.
“It’s been really interesting being involved in the flying operations over the past few days,” said Able Seaman Claire Walker, one of Mersey’s seaman specialists. “I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never done it on board before, however it was a really enjoyable experience. Especially getting the experience of both Wildcat and Merlin. Adding a vertical replenishment as well. I managed to gain a lot of experience from all the different training serials”