Royal Navy personnel, who by using Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopters helped Army Air Corps (AAC) Apache helicopter launch strikes against Gaddafi's forces in Libya, have returned home from operations.
Nearly 50 members of 857 Naval Air Squadron touched down at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall on Friday, 23 September 2011, after four months away, flying over Libya in support of NATO operations enforcing United Nation Security Council Resolution 1973.
Using two Mark 7 Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopters, crews flew almost 100 operational sorties over Libya - all at night and usually lasting around three hours. In one month alone, the helicopters were airborne for nearly 150 hours.
The squadron only returned from Afghanistan in December 2010, where it proved its utility in large drugs busts and surveillance missions.
The squadron was only due to go sea for around six weeks in the spring, to prove the UK’s new response force of ships and aircraft could stand ready. But in late May 2011 it was ordered to support operations off Libya and all the people, kit and helicopters were shifted to the 20,000 tonne helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.
The mission was to clear a path for the Apaches - finding safe routes in and out of Libya without being spotted. They also fed back real-time information about ground movements in Libya, passing vital information back to headquarters in Britain and at NATO for analysis.
Lieutenant Commander Geoff Hayward, Commanding Officer 857 NAS, said:
We did what we did at short notice, on war-fighting operations at sea with a squadron just back from Afghanistan. We very quickly got to grips with operating at sea again.
Our main task was ‘wide area surveillance’, protecting Ocean and her escorts, providing awareness of shipping and movements so that Ocean could be in the best position to launch the Apaches and maintain surprise.
The key to Ocean’s success was launching Apaches on their strike missions and to do that our Sea Kings were critical. It wasn’t just because of the situational awareness of land and air, but also because we acted as a communications link between the Apaches and the command on Ocean. That link was crucial to the success of missions.
There’s a great feeling coming back to the ship, seeing the Apaches there, attending the briefing and realising that the information that you passed to them was absolutely vital.
As well as the aircrew flying the demanding missions, 857’s Commanding Officer praised the squadron engineers back on HMS Ocean who worked around the clock ensuring the helicopters were always ready for action. He said:
They deserve a big pat on the back - they’ve worked extremely hard and achieved a fantastic serviceability rate.
Air Engineering Officer Lieutenant Mark Roddy said everyone in the squadron was aware of the importance of the missions - and were kept fully up to date with events. He said:
People were told what we were trying to achieve, and that motivated everyone. The first night of strike operations stands out - seeing the lights on the shore, we could see the tangible results of all the effort that we’d put into that mission. It made a massive difference.
We set out for seven weeks - and managed to stretch it to four months, maintaining a very high operational tempo. I think we’ve proven again how versatile these squadrons are.
The squadron is now back at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall and is due to return to the front line in Afghanistan in due course.