A quick glance at these images and video clips and you could be forgiven for thinking you are watching a Royal Air Force AgustaWestland Merlin HC3 hard at work in Afghanistan. However, you’d be wrong. The first of the these medium-lift machines and their crews are just about to deploy there having almost wrapped up four months of intensive hot and high environmental training at the U.S. Navy’s El Centro facility in California.
I BERP blades on an HC3 at El Centro (All photos and video by Guy Norris)
I had a chance to fly a regular training sortie with the crew of ZJ123, one of four machines taking part in Exercise Merlin Vortex. The exercise marks the RAF’s first use of El Centro for helicopter training and makes use of the local desert and mountains to certify crews for ‘brownout’ landings in dusty conditions, high altitude, hot weather operations, flying with underslung loads, tactical flying and use of the Elbit Systems display night vision goggles (ANVIS/HUD-24T) system newly installed in the Merlin.
Pintel-mounted GPMG and operator
Following the U.K. decision in mid-year to deploy the Merlin to Afghanistan the establishment of the operation at El Centro was expedited in late August with the airlift of four HC3 helicopters directly from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire to California using RAF C-17s. Since then “we’ve had up to 40 crews through here, and we will process around 450 people including support staff,” says Merlin Vortex detachment commander Lt Cdr Neil Parrock Parrock who adds this includes around 20 new crews who fly additional sorties as part of required ab-initio training.
Testing for 'brownout' desert landings (Video editing Chris Ravelo)
To-date, with the last batch of crews now in training, Merlin Vortex has included around 900 flight hours, representing around 20 hours per pilot of which around half is considered ‘environmental qualification’ (EQ) flight time. “To get the entire force trained in four months has been quite a feat,” he comments. The flying rate of the four aircraft exceeds that which will be seen in service. “They’ve been flogged to death, but we’ve been very lucky. We’ve had good serviceability and we shall achieve all the training we need to do,” Parrock adds.
Canyon flying in the Laguna Mountains
Using a newly devised training syllabus, successive crews have undergone four weeks of ground and flight training, the latter of which is split into two major elements – EQ, and pre-deployment training. The environmental phase focuses on ‘advanced’ dust landings, under-slung loads, mountain operations and reduced illumination training in which crews practice flying in and out of restricted landing zones at night outlined with flares. The Merlin has been specially outfitted for carrying under-slung loads for Iraq and Afghan deployments.
Landing on a small mountain peak
Mountain training is a significant part of the exercise because of the high-altitudes in the Afghan theater. The UK's Camp Bastion base is at an altitude of around 4,000ft, versus sea level for most areas of Iraq, while operational sorties will see the Merlin fleet tasked to various sites around the Hindu Kush mountains which run northeast to southwest across the country. These divide Afghanistan into three major regions of which the Central Highlands account for around two thirds of the country’s area. “We take the aircraft up to landing zones at altitude, and we can land on hills at 6,000 to 7,000-ft,” though higher altitudes represent a major challenge as above these heights “we are power limited,” says Parrock. Training flights are also performed out of Big Bear airport, a civilian airfield at 6,750-ft up in the San Bernardino Mountains where local density altitude can exceed 10,000-ft on hot days.
Afghanistan or California?
Pre-deployment training focuses on a series of tactical sorties to familiarize crews with the DNVGs, tactical approaches, low flying and take-offs, landing in pairs and gunnery. Pintel-mounted general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs) have been installed in the Merlin HC3/3As along with several other modifications under urgent operational requirement (UOR) upgrades. In addition to the weapons, DNVGs and under-slung load capability, other theatre entry-standard modifications include communications and defensive aids system upgrades, improved ballistic protection and a more capable forward-looking infrared chin turret.
Tactical training flights include two instructors per aircraft who “overlay things, talk on the radio and input different scenarios to challenge the crews while they are doing their general duties. At night these involve DNVG use and pairs landings. “We need to nail that because we predominantly do not operate as ‘singletons’ and the challenges of dust landings are even greater in that situation,” he adds. Gunnery training includes firing all three GPMGs simultaneously on weapons ranges close to El Centro. “The training we have on the ranges here is amazing, there is nowhere in the U.K or Europe that has the same ability,” says Parrock who adds that the fast transit time from El Centro to the ranges, desert practice areas and mountainous terrain has also helped maximize training time.