Once the training is completed, the Portsmouth-based warship will be the nation’s on-call helicopter carrier, ready for global missions.
Lynx helicopters from 702 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) in Yeovilton and Merlins of 820 Naval Air Squadron in Culdrose have joined ‘Lusty’, as the ship is affectionately known, in the Channel ahead of seven weeks in the hands of the Navy’s most exacting training organisation.
The veteran warship - converted to a commando and helicopter carrier during her £40m refit completed in July 2011 - is about to embark on operational sea training off Plymouth.
The seven-week package tests the 750-plus men and women aboard on everything the 22,000-tonne ship might be expected to deal with in the real world, for in the new year she’ll be Britain’s on-call helicopter carrier, taking over from HMS Ocean which is currently deployed east of Suez.
As well as preparing Illustrious’ ship’s company for any travails they might encounter, the seven weeks in the hands of the world-renowned Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) organisation allow Fleet Air Arm air and ground crews to conduct vital at-sea training.
In the case of 702 NAS, it’s a chance to give trainee Lynx fliers a taste of operating from a warship at sea on their long path to front line duties with 815 NAS.
And for the Merlins of 820 NAS it’s a chance to reacquaint themselves with their traditional role of operating en masse from a flat-top (with its sister unit 814 NAS, 820 NAS has typically been a ‘carrier squadron’).
The helicopters’ presence means Lusty’s deck is operational pretty much at all hours of the day.
The operational sea training will involve dealing with battle damage, crashes on deck, machinery fires, and tracking and destroying incoming aerial threats.
All of which is bread and butter to veterans of such training, of which there are many aboard the carrier, but there are also many in Illustrious’ ship’s company for whom this is their first taste of the FOST experience:
For all the sailors on board there’s undoubtedly a sense of excitement and eagerness taking Illustrious through her first operational sea training since emerging from refit a few months ago,” said Captain Jerry Kyd, the carrier’s Commanding Officer.
We will be put through a very demanding training period up until Christmas, honing our fighting skills, before we become the UK’s on-call helicopter carrier early next year.
We are ready for both the training and whatever the Government asks us to do in the future.