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Fleet Air Arm squadron celebrates diamond jubilee

The Fleet Air Arm's airborne early warning squadron are celebrating six decades of acting as the Royal Navy's 'eyes in the sky'.

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Apart from a five-year break at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, 849 Naval Air Squadron (849 NAS) and, for the past six years, its sister squadrons 854 and 857, have acted as the eyes of the fleet in peace and war since 1952.

To mark the anniversary, veterans and current personnel recently converged on the new Palembang Building at Culdrose to witness a flypast by the current aircraft performing the vital task: a Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopter.

Today’s band of airborne brothers were regaled with tales from the pioneering days of airborne early warning and the first plane to perform the duty: the Douglas Skyraider.

The senior pilot of 849 NAS, Lieutenant Commander Peter Hiles, was guest of honour at the anniversary celebrations, delighting his audience with stories of the rather chunky Skyraider, including one sortie where its only engine cut out far over the ocean. Having ‘racked his brains a little’ Lt Cdr Hiles restarted it by continually pressing the priming pump button. By the time he returned safely to base his index finger was the size of a golf ball.

Back at the beginning, the airborne early warners were known by their call sign ‘Anyface’. For the past 30 years, however, throughout the Royal Navy they’ve been known simply as the Baggers, courtesy of the large black inflatable sack which carries the radar and makes the Sea Kings instantly recognisable.

As for airborne early warning, it has evolved to become ‘airborne surveillance and control’. Today’s aircraft not merely track potential targets in the heavens, but also movement on the ground - something they’re currently carrying out over Afghanistan courtesy of 857 NAS.

The intelligence the Baggers have gathered in Afghanistan - where locals have nicknamed them the Cloudwalkers - has led to arms and drugs being seized by ground troops.

Some of 857’s colleagues in 854 NAS have just returned from Anglo-French exercises off Corsica, while 849 feeds the two front line squadrons with a regular supply of pilots, observers and technicians.

In its airborne early warning role (it fought in the Second World War as a strike-bomber squadron) 849 reformed in July 1952 at Royal Naval Air Station Brawdy in Pembrokeshire.

After eight years flying the Skyraider, the squadron switched to the unforgettable Gannet from 1960 to 1978, flying finally from the Audacious Class HMS Ark Royal (R09) - Britain’s last conventional aircraft carrier. When the ship decommissioned in 1978, so 849 disbanded.

The Falklands War in 1982 reaffirmed the need for airborne early warning, resulting in Sea Kings being rapidly converted to the role in just 11 weeks.

That makeshift remedy became formal in November 1984 when 849 reformed with the Sea King Mk2. 18 years later the next generation was introduced with Searchwater 2000 radar being fitted to Sea King Mk7s. They quickly proved their effectiveness in the 2003 campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime, monitoring the movement of ground forces.

Since then the Baggers have been used to great effect in the war against drug runners in the Caribbean, last year’s operations off Libya and as back-up for other radar systems during this summer’s Olympics.

Published 1 November 2012