UK — Navy pilots train for Helmand in Californian desert

Roy­al Navy Sea King heli­copter pilots and their crews from the Com­man­do Heli­copter Force (CHF) have been train­ing for their deploy­ment to Afghanistan in the Cal­i­forn­ian desert.

A Sea King conducting load-lifting
A Sea King con­duct­ing load-lift­ing
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The pilots and air­crew from 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons have been under­go­ing envi­ron­men­tal qual­i­fi­ca­tion train­ing at the Naval Air Facil­i­ty El Cen­tro, just north of the Mex­i­can bor­der.

The pur­pose of this train­ing, called Exer­cise Desert Com­man­do, has been to refresh some of the old­er pilots and air­crew of the CHF in the tech­niques required to oper­ate in the harsh con­di­tions of the desert which are sim­i­lar to those they will face in Hel­mand.

At the same time, per­son­nel fresh to the front line are get­ting their first taste of what it is like to work in this envi­ron­ment.

See more pic­tures from the train­ing exer­cise in the Gallery at Relat­ed News.

Although many of the tech­niques are the same as taught and prac­tised dur­ing Sea King fly­ing train­ing, there are small dif­fer­ences, and some big ones.

For the pilots and air­crew who have nev­er worked in this envi­ron­ment before, one of the most notable dif­fer­ences is the tem­per­a­ture. Con­stant­ly sweat­ing in the air­craft is not a strange phe­nom­e­non to the new pilots because dur­ing train­ing their instruc­tors cer­tain­ly knew how to make them work hard. How­ev­er, for this exer­cise, con­stant per­spi­ra­tion in the cock­pit was due to the bak­ing Cal­i­for­nia sun.

It is not just the air­crew who have faced increased phys­i­cal demands — the engi­neers worked tire­less­ly ensur­ing the ven­er­a­ble old Sea King was ser­vice­able for the train­ing flights.

The engi­neers rose admirably to the chal­lenges pre­sent­ed by the need to change engines, fuel tanks and radios — with­out their com­mit­ment and ded­i­ca­tion to main­tain­ing the air­craft it would not have been pos­si­ble to meet the required train­ing objec­tives.

 Sea King helicopters practise formation dust landings
Sea King heli­copters prac­tise for­ma­tion dust land­ings
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Most of the train­ing was con­duct­ed at New Holtsville — a dis­used air­field 15 min­utes flight from El Cen­tro which was suit­able for per­fect­ing dust land­ings and load-lift­ing.

To assist with this, the mobile air oper­a­tions team was despatched from Yeovil­ton to spend many an hour in the harsh sun set­ting up aids on the ground used by the pilots to land the air­craft in dust recir­cu­la­tion, and to assist with the load-lift­ing seri­als.

Dur­ing the train­ing exer­cis­es, Rear Admi­ral Tony John­stone-Burt, Com­man­der of Joint Heli­copter Com­mand, made a vis­it to observe how the men and women of the CHF were oper­at­ing. He said:

“The Roy­al Navy’s Com­man­do Heli­copter Force con­tributes sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the sta­bil­i­sa­tion effort in Afghanistan.

“I have been enor­mous­ly impressed by all the per­son­nel involved, both dur­ing their train­ing and when deployed on oper­a­tions.

“Our air­crew, ground crew and engi­neers and their heli­copters in the­atre are doing amaz­ing things in extreme tem­per­a­tures and in the face of a very deter­mined ene­my.

“Exer­cise Desert Com­man­do has afford­ed our air­crew envi­ron­men­tal train­ing which is vital for their prepa­ra­tion for their squadrons’ deploy­ment to Hel­mand lat­er in the year.”

Over­all, 25 air­crew flew more than 130 hours dur­ing the envi­ron­men­tal fly­ing course. All the train­ing objec­tives were achieved which means that every­one now has the skills nec­es­sary to face up to the chal­lenges of work­ing in Afghanistan in the not too dis­tant future.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK