Despite punishing daytime temperatures in the mid-30s degrees Celsius, ‘The Fighting Clan’, as HMS Sutherland is known, continues her mission against international terrorism and the drugs trade in the Indian Ocean.
Pirate and smuggler dhows aren’t renowned for sweeping expanses of unobstructed deck, let alone a flight deck to set down a ten-tonne naval helicopter, so these exercises are useful preparation for the commandos, who may have to board such vessels from the air during the course of their deployment.
When not inspecting vessels for real - or carrying out reassurance visits to lawful mariners to explain the international security mission in the Indian Ocean - the combined boarding team of green berets from 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines at Faslane (the Navy’s specialists in board and search) and members of the frigate’s ship’s company, who work hand-in-hand with the Royal Marines, have been on the water and in the air to ensure their skills are maintained.
The Merlin is rapidly becoming the aircraft of choice in the Royal Navy’s ongoing mission to help drive pirates, terrorists, smugglers and people traffickers from 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometres) of sea from the shores of the Seychelles and East Africa to the Gulf and the Indian sub-continent.
Merlin is as fast, if not faster, than a Lynx, with a cruising speed of 150 knots (270km/h), has a greater range than the smaller Fleet Air Arm helicopter, at over 800km compared with 600km, and has no trouble accommodating a Royal Marines rapid roping assault team, or a sniper team, or a WESCAM infra-optic camera which can see through clouds. In addition, the Merlin’s aircrew can track numerous surface targets thanks to its impressive sensor suite.
For these reasons, sister Merlins from 814 Naval Air Squadron were in the air daily off Weymouth during Operation OLYMPICS to keep track of movements in the Channel near the Games’ sailing events.
On the Indian Ocean, assisting the ship’s flight from 829 Naval Air Squadron, based at Culdrose in Cornwall, were the flight deck team. They were joined by the Fighting Clan’s ‘bish’, Chaplain Bill Gates, who was treated to the full effect of the Merlin’s downwash, stronger than that of any other helicopter in the Fleet Air Arm.
HMS Sutherland is in the early stages of her maritime security deployment, working alongside friendly nations and navies patrolling the Indian Ocean/east of Suez region. She is due back home just before Christmas.