Afghanistan — RAF Merlin squadron reflects on Helmand deployment

After sev­er­al weeks pro­vid­ing sup­port to troops on the ground in Hel­mand province, the Mer­lin heli­copter crews from 28 (Army Coop­er­a­tion) Squadron’s B Flight, based at RAF Ben­son in Oxford­shire, are com­ing home.

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An RAF Mer­lin heli­copter of 28 (Army Coop­er­a­tion) Squadron lands at a Patrol Base in Hel­mand, south­ern Afghanistan
Source: Major Paul Smyth, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

B Flight arrived at Bas­tion Air­field in late May 2010. Fol­low­ing mul­ti­ple detach­ments in Iraq over the past five years, this was their first to Afghanistan.

The Mer­lins they oper­ate are all-weath­er, day-and-night, mul­ti-role heli­copters, used in both tac­ti­cal and strate­gic oper­a­tional roles, and per­form tasks in Afghanistan which include pick­ing up casu­al­ties and fly­ing resup­ply mis­sions.

Fol­low­ing the ini­tial manda­to­ry admin pro­ce­dures and a long day spent on a hot rifle range, the B Flight crews took to the skies and flew towards the Green Zone for the first time.

The ini­tial flight, always flown with a train­er who has more in-the­atre expe­ri­ence, was an eye-open­er.

There were a large num­ber of radio calls ask­ing for tran­sit between oper­at­ing bases and the com­plex­i­ty of the air­space was some­thing that most of the air­crew had not seen before.

Restrict­ed oper­at­ing zones and the sheer num­ber of avi­a­tion assets which oper­ate in the skies over Hel­mand are a lot for any­one to get their head around.

The first trip was an indi­ca­tor of what the remain­der of the detach­ment had in store.

Being indi­vid­u­als who don’t like to dis­ap­point, B Flight per­son­nel, and a few select­ed guests, rose to the chal­lenge, com­plet­ed their han­dover, and quick­ly got stuck into the dai­ly task­ing and rou­tine.

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Load­mas­ter Sergeant Jock For­rester mans the gen­er­al pur­pose machine gun on a Mer­lin heli­copter over Hel­mand, south­ern Afghanistan
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

This rou­tine involved work­ing in ambi­ent tem­per­a­tures of 45 degrees Cel­sius, lead­ing to cock­pit and cab­in tem­per­a­tures of up to 50 degrees. Throw safe­ty equip­ment, ther­mal fire pro­tec­tion, gloves and hel­mets into the mix and the result is some very hot and sweaty indi­vid­u­als.

Land­ing sites in Hel­mand province vary dra­mat­i­cal­ly between pur­pose-built, foot­ball-pitch-sized tar­mac areas, to dust bowls which cre­ate 200-foot-high (61m) dust clouds, and the pilots reg­u­lar­ly car­ried out the final stages of approach­es with min­i­mal vis­i­bil­i­ty.

There are land­ing sites in the Green Zone which are sur­round­ed by trees, and oth­ers on the pin­na­cles of moun­tains, result­ing in few hov­er­ing ref­er­ences for the han­dling pilots whilst oper­at­ing at the lim­its of the aircraft’s per­for­mance.

All of the sites have their own chal­lenges and the com­plex­i­ties encoun­tered when land­ing with­in them can­not be under­stat­ed or tak­en for grant­ed at any time. This was high­light­ed in uncom­fort­able detail when a Mer­lin entered an extreme dust cloud on land­ing in a tight spot and, fol­low­ing the loss of all ref­er­ences, suf­fered a heavy land­ing.

It was forced to shut down in the secure site where it land­ed and, on fur­ther inspec­tion, the cap­tain realised it had sus­tained some dam­age. Luck­i­ly no-one was hurt but, occur­ring ear­ly in the detach­ment, it rapid­ly brought home the real­i­ty of oper­at­ing in such a harsh and chal­leng­ing envi­ron­ment.

Car­go car­ried by the Mer­lins has var­ied enor­mous­ly from Counter-IED teams to gen­er­al resup­ply and troop­ing tasks.

Resup­ply mis­sions are extreme­ly impor­tant and the mail often includ­ed on these flights is a huge morale boost for the troops on the ground.

RAF Merlin helicopter firing flares over Helmand
RAF Mer­lin heli­copter fir­ing flares over Hel­mand
Source: Major Paul Smyth, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

In addi­tion, the Mer­lins have trans­port­ed numer­ous patients includ­ing both ISAF forces and Afghan casu­al­ties. Under­slung loads have also been wide­ly used to car­ry the more unwieldy freight required across the area of oper­a­tions.

The B Flight engi­neers have worked 12-hour shifts every day since arriv­ing in the­atre, hav­ing the unen­vi­able task of try­ing to main­tain the Mer­lin heli­copters being flown in the most unfor­giv­ing of envi­ron­ments.

The dust intake, the high alti­tude, and the chal­leng­ing fly­ing puts a great strain on the Mer­lin, yet the engi­neer­ing force ensures there are ser­vice­able air­craft avail­able to oper­ate on a dai­ly basis.

A spokesman for B Flight said:

“B Flight has had a detach­ment in Afghanistan fraught with the ‘expect­ed’ unfore­seen issues which arise dur­ing such a ven­ture.

“They have worked every day in the heat and the dust and have achieved every­thing that they have been tasked with and more.

“The engi­neers have worked for 10 weeks with­out a whole day off.

“It is now time to go home, reunite with loved ones, and enjoy some well-deserved time off. As B Flight hand over to C Flight this week they reflect on a job well done.”

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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