Royal Navy’s Next-Generation Merlin Helicopter Debuts at Sea

Royal Navy’s Next-Generation Merlin Helicopter Debuts at Sea

The Navy’s next-generation Merlin helicopter has made its debut at sea with 12 days of trials aboard HMS Illustrious. The first of 30 new and enhanced Mk2 Merlins flew ten sorties on and off the flight deck of the helicopter carrier in the Western Approaches.

Being guided safely down on to the deck of HMS Illustrious, this is the future of Fleet Air Arm submarine hunting.

And pirate-busting.

And smuggler-strangling.

And drug-runner-catching.

This is the next-generation Merlin making its debut at sea, during a dozen-day period of trials aboard the helicopter carrier off the South Coast.

Outwardly, the Mk2 looks pretty much identical to the Mk1 which has become the Fleet Air Arm’s ‘helicopter of choice’ in support of the RN’s global operations, and the counter-piracy/smuggling/terrorism mission east of Suez in particular.

But as part of a £750m revamp 30 of the Culdrose-based helicopters, which have been in front-line service with the Royal Navy since 2001, are being stripped out inside and computer wizardry which was state of the art in the late ’90s is being replaced with today’s latest tech.

In a nutshell, that means the ability to find and track more potential targets on or below the surface of the ocean, not least submarines operating closer to shore.

Aircrew will receive improved night vision goggles and enhanced fast-roping facilities for Royal Marines boarding teams are being installed – vital for those east of Suez missions.

And state-of-the-art touch screens are being fitted to make things easier for the fliers to operate.

This first Mk2 – tail number ZH826 – spent 12 days flying on to and off the deck of Lusty as a 34-strong trials team – drawn from the Fleet Air Arm, constructors AgustaWestland, defence giant Lockheed Martin and experts of the Air Test and Evaluation Centre at Boscombe Down – assessed the improved helicopter’s performance.

The first of the new features to be tested was the navigation system – and in particular how it fared when it couldn’t call upon any GPS satellite data, one of the most strenuous, but not unlikely, conditions, Merlin aircrew may encounter.

During the ten test sorties ZH826 made from the deck of the Portsmouth-based carrier off Plymouth and out into the wider Atlantic, reams of data were collected, while the flight crew and assessors recorded their observations for the Mk2 team to evaluate once back on dry land.

Whenever possible the aircrew flashed up other new systems on the Mk2 to see how it will operate from a Royal Navy warship at sea once the upgraded helicopter enters service over the next couple of years.

When the Merlin was on the deck, tours of the new-look aircraft were given to Lusty’s Commanding Officer, Capt Martin Connell, his deputy Cdr Matt Harvey, and officer cadets.

ZH826 has now returned to Boscombe Down for continued trials and evaluations, while Illustrious sailed from Portsmouth yesterday to begin her part in the Royal Navy’s key autumn deployment to the Mediterranean, Cougar 12.

Merlin Mk2 is one of two next-generation helicopters currently undergoing trials; also joining the Fleet Air Arm inventory over the next two years is the Wildcat, 21st-Century successor to the Lynx.

Naval Today Staff, October 3, 2012; Image: RN