From Benson to Bastion - today the Royal Air Force Merlin Force marked their first anniversary on Operation HERRICK.
Following transportation to Afghanistan, re-assembly and pre-flight checks, the Merlin Force officially declared that they were ready for operational flying on the front line a full year ago.
The Merlins have spent those twelve months transporting troops, and re-supplying them with essential ammunition, food and equipment. During this time they have carried almost 40,000 troops and lifted over 750 tonnes of freight; providing a significant increase in UK military helicopter capacity available to Battlefield Commanders.
Working alongside the Chinook, Sea King, Apache and Lynx helicopters already supporting Operation HERRICK as part of Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan), personnel from 28 (Army Co-operation) and 78 Squadrons have deployed as Flights from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. In their words they describe some of the challenges they faced:
Flight Lieutenant Nick Humble, a Merlin pilot with 78 Squadron, deployed on his first operational tour to Afghanistan this summer. "This was the first time that I’ve deployed on operations since I joined the military. The highlight for me was probably the first trip in theatre – having trained for two and a half years, getting to do the job and see the results was amazing. I’m looking forward to going back again next year to build on everything we have achieved this year; to go to the next level of experience and help the troops on the ground again and do my part in the Merlin Force."
It was also a first deployment for engineer Senior Aircraftman Alun Williams, 78 Squadron. "This was my first operational deployment so I had no idea what it was going to be like. When you’re on the way you’re a bit nervous and anxious but when you get there it all disappears. You forget about the bad things because when you get there you’re just working and you don’t really have time to think about anything else. I’m looking forward to going back again next year in a strange way. I found it hard the first two weeks on my first deployment because of the heat but once you got used to it the heat wasn’t too bad. When I go back next year I’ll know what’s coming.”
Sergeant Stuart Fryatt, an engineer with 28 (AC) Squadron, talked about the teamwork needed on Operations. "I have at least twelve years experience on the Merlins here and the experience is definitely needed out there; it’s a lot of hard work! The working environment is very conducive to getting the cabs fixed though, including the good working relations we have with the other UK and NATO helicopter forces. The sand is very fine and it gets absolutely everywhere but we’ve had some fantastic engineering achievements out there. There’s an objective to it at the end of the day though; as a flight we come together with a common goal and an achievement as you need to produce the helicopter for so many hours as people’s lives depend on it.”
Squadron Leader Mark Biggadike, Second in Command of 78 Squadron, was one of the last personnel to return from Iraq. He commanded C Flight in Afghanistan earlier this year: "It was a big challenge to get the aircraft from Iraq to Afghanistan but it was something that the Force as a whole rose to really well. It was also the first time I had commanded a helicopter detachment in quite such a hostile environment and it was good to see the Merlin making a difference in theatre; to the troops on the ground and indirectly to the overall effort.”
“I think the Merlin performed very well during their first summer operating in Afghanistan, and in those conditions. Working with the other aircraft types and integrating with all three Services out there was a very positive experience. It’s nice to see it work as well as it does: it means that the concept of Joint Operations is alive and well and is very successful - Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) is a prime example of that."
Commander Joint Helicopter Command, Rear Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, said: "The Merlin aircraft from RAF Benson are contributing significantly to the stabilisation effort in Afghanistan. I have been enormously impressed by all the personnel involved, both during their training and when deployed on operations. Our aircrew, ground crew, logisticians and engineers and their helicopters in theatre are doing amazing things in extreme temperatures and in the face of a very determined enemy."
Group Captain Richard Mason, Station Commander at RAF Benson, home of the Merlin Force, summed up the year: "The redeployment of Merlin from Iraq to Afghanistan last year, one month ahead of schedule, was a remarkable achievement. Since then, the Merlin has made an outstanding contribution in the most challenging of conditions. The courage of the RAF crews, who regularly support the Counter IED Task Force (recognised in the recent Pride of Britain awards), is matched only by the commitment and professionalism of the engineering and support personnel; it has been a real team effort both in Afghanistan and back in the UK."
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