This is a shining example of joined-up thinking - a squadron which integrates the training of its aircrew and engineers before sending them out of the door to an operational unit and is now leading the Royal Navy into a new age of Merlin. And the Commanding Officer of 824 NAS, Commander Gavin Richardson, says Merlin capability starts at their front door.
The front door in question is the modest entrance to the massive Merlin Training Facility (MTF). The key to its success lies in the structure of the courses - but that is not the most eye-catching facet. That honour lies with the training aids, a far too modest term for some serious kit.
Top of the list is the Cockpit Dynamic Simulator (CDS) - ‘the most expensive Xbox in the world’, as one member of the squadron described it. Housed in a vast chamber, trainees enter the simulator across a lofty bridge.
The simulator, like the real aircraft, requires light handling, and does not particularly like sudden, violent movements:
We start pilot training on a light aircraft, which needs a light touch, and the first helicopter we fly - the Squirrel - is the same,” said simulator instructor Lieutenant Craig Howe.
So, by the time we get to the heavier helicopters, any heavyhandedness should be beaten out of us.
Officer in charge of the MTF, Lieutenant Commander Jaggers, said:
Fundamental to crew training is the deck landing, and this is ideal practice.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Argus is just one of the ships that Merlin pilots can encounter, and - as with the rest of the simulator - the level of accuracy is impressive:
Most UK airfields are represented on the simulator, but the ones we use more often are modelled to a better level than the others,” said Lieutenant Commander Jaggers. “Worldwide we can do the Falklands, Gibraltar - the ones we are likely to come across. But certainly we have got all the UK military airfields. And it is amazing how quickly you forget you are in a simulator…
When the simulator banks steeply to approach the ship upwind, the visual and physical signals suggest to the pilot that there is a great deal more movement than there really is.
In-house technical staff keep a close eye on what is going on with a ship to keep the simulations bang up-to-date; in the case of Argus the simulated ship has been remodelled to mimic the real ship, including recently-changed deck markings.
As pilots descend towards ships such as HMS Iron Duke, the sea is ruffled by the heavy downdraft from the virtual Merlin. Extra features such as a Russian Akula Class submarine cruising past can be added.
The Type 23 is a lot closer to the water than Argus - the flight deck is about 16ft [5m] off the sea, as opposed to 46-48ft [14-15m] with Argus,” said Lieutenant Howe, who wryly describes himself as a simulator display pilot.
It is much more intimate - everything is much closer, but the procedure is the same. The Type 23 is really challenging for young pilots.
Although students learn from their mistakes, instructors are careful not to put them in too many tight spots:
We have to be careful we do not shake a young pilot’s - or anyone’s for that matter - confidence,” said Lieutenant Commander Jaggers. “Not too much terror…
Lieutenant Howe said landing is a simple matter really; just putting the machine down on the ‘bum line’ - a mark on the deck which correlates with the pilot’s seat in the helicopter.
Simulation in the world of Merlins is nothing new - aircrew and engineers have been training this way for the best part of a decade.
One real benefit of the simulation is the saving of time - instead of making Merlin fly simulator miles to reach a submarine, it is easier and quicker to move the submarine to the Merlin.
The MTF has other simulators too - maybe not quite as eye-catching, but every bit as important to the training process. Two cabins house Rear Crew Trainers (RCTs), where trainee aircrew can get to grips with the electronic kit found behind the cockpit of a Merlin.
It is a simple task to link the displays of the RCTs to the CDS, allowing a full simulated mission despite the fact the students are in different parts of the building. Whatever the pilot can see (or cannot see if it is dark or murky) from the cockpit is reproduced exactly in radar or sonar form.
And while the pilots invariably grab the limelight, the folk in the back working on the screens are trained to be peerless operators of sophisticated sonics and sonar equipment which are critical to the success of anti-submarine operations.
For the pilots there is also a Cockpit Procedural Trainer which does not have the visuals and motion of the CDS but allows students to go through cockpit drills using exactly the same controls, switches, buttons and displays as they will use in the real thing.
Although the 13-month aircrew courses are in the minority at the MTF, they last longer and absorb most training resources; the fact that they are split 65:35 in favour of simulated training gives some indication as to the savings made in terms of air time, fuel costs and the fact that training is much less weather-dependent than before the advent of such accurate simulations.
In a curriculum moving towards computer-aided training - similar to computer-based training, but with an instructor present to ease them along at their own pace - the fledgling engineers start in a series of educational suites on the ground floor; the MTF has an in-house network of 14 servers, 83 workstations and 33 laptops.
When ready they move on to the Mechanical Systems Trainer.
The trainer is based on the upper part of the aircraft; it has rotors (although the blades are stubs), full transmission and hydraulic machinery, and myriad faults can be programmed in by instructors for trainees to tackle. It is configured exactly the same as the real Merlin, and students can even practise changing engines as if in the confined space of a Type 23 frigate using a Hoist Boom Assembly.
Next door is the Weapon Systems Trainer:
This is used to train on weapons, the undercarriage, sonar, the deck-grab and so on,” said Lieutenant Commander Jaggers.
We can practise loading and unloading, and with the Mk2 Merlin we can do the machine gun as well as the depth charges and Stingray torpedo.
Students gradually build up skill and experience at working on the equipment, whether in normal light or in degrees of darkness, gaining confidence in their abilities as they progress.
Of course, there comes a time when the trainees get the chance to test themselves in the real world, and across the road from the MTF is 824 Naval Air Squadron’s headquarters - and a clutch of genuine, solid, three-dimensional Merlin helicopters. For most trainees, the transition is practically seamless.
And they do not leave the University of Merlin with just a set of deep military skills. In partnership with the Open University, successful officers passing through 824 NAS achieve a foundation degree in Military Aviation Studies, whilst aircrew obtain a City and Guilds Level 3 Diploma.
The training facility is set up to provide in excess of 20,000 student training hours each year. Of its 70 or so staff, just under half are Royal Navy instructors - engineer and aircrew - while another 20 are civil servants.
And even outside the simulators, 824 Naval Air Squadron’s performance is impressive - the squadron delivers 33 per cent of the Merlin’s flying rate with only 25 per cent of the Navy’s assets.