Protecting the Royal Navy from surface and sub-surface threats as well as supporting the United Kingdom’s maritime security operations is a role 814 Naval Air Squadron have conducted for many years. AeroResource recently had the unique opportunity to visit this incredible squadron to consider what it is like being a “Flying Tiger’.

Cornwall’s Sub Hunters

It is late afternoon on a cold and dank winter’s day. Flying conditions are far from ideal with low cloud and poor visibility. Despite this, the four person Royal Navy Merlin HM2 aircrew from 814 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) have quickly hover taxied their already fuelled aircraft to the ‘Navy H’ location at Prestwick Airport (HMS Gannet) in Ayrshire, and await clearance instructions from Prestwick’s Air Traffic Control. Having cleared the airspace, due to the nature and urgency of the ‘shout’, these instructions come quickly. In no time, the grey Merlin HM2 helicopter has disappeared into the mist and is heading out over the Irish Sea at 100 feet to complete its secretive and unspecified mission over the Firth of Clyde, Scotland. Once over the sea, the whole crew are now working hard to help ensure collision avoidance and as safe a route as possible to their designated tasking location. This is flying on the edge at high readiness; 814’s ‘Pingers’ are on the prowl!

For good reason, some of the roles completed by the Merlin Helicopter Force (MHF) based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall have received little or no attention for many years now, although some visibility was briefly provided during the filming of the British Broadcasting Company’s documentary on HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) “Warship-Tour of Duty” and on HMS Northumberland (F238) Warship: Life at Sea, Season 3 (Channel 5). Nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’, 814 NAS is one of three Squadrons located at RNAS Culdrose. Two of these are frontline operational Squadrons; 814 NAS and 820 NAS, with 824 NAS the designated training Squadron. In broad terms, MHF’s responsibility is to provide operationally capable Helicopter Marine (HM) aircraft on continuous high readiness to support the United Kingdom’s defence tasking. 

820 NAS is the dedicated Squadron for the UK Carrier Strike Group’s two aircraft carriers; HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) and HMS Prince of Wales (R09). Once aboard, 820 NAS’s primary mission set comprises Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and from March 2021, providing Airborne Early Warning (AEW) using Lockheed Martin’s Crowsnest Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) system. Visible evidence of the system in use is the inflatable Kevlar ‘Bag’ attached to the port side of the helicopter which contains the high powered radar. In simple terms, 814 NAS covers all other Merlin HM2 missions tasked by Defence. 

High Readiness

814’s specific tasking means they are always at high readiness, 24/7, 365 days a year. In general, each Squadron has five to seven aircraft assigned with a couple in deep maintenance. Aircraft assigned will be maintained by each Squadron using hourly and calendar maintenance schedules depending on the calendar flying undertaken. The others within the fleet will be in medium term maintenance, whilst some will be receiving depth maintenance which is undertaken at Culdrose’s Merlin Depth Maintenance Facility located at ‘Whiskey’ site. The MHF fleet currently comprises 30 Merlin HM2s which have an extended out of service date of 2040. 

Mission Set

814 NAS mission set is broad and varied but unfortunately these could not be specified in detail for security reasons. That said, two which are highly sensitive essentially fall under the banner of  ‘Home Water Defence’ or protection. This incorporates any activity taking place at any location in UK waters that requires a military intervention. Terrorism undertaken by an individual, or group, would fall into this category. Whilst Culdrose no longer maintains a non-specific ‘public’ Search and Rescue (SAR) role which is now the responsibility of His Majesty’s Coast Guard located at Cornwall Newquay airport, the Squadron will intervene if a mayday call is received and they are in the vicinity. 

Personnel within the Squadron are trained to undertake very specific roles which means the focus for those directly involved in these key areas; both flying and maintenance, is intense. The role of 814 NAS Sea Flight often based at Prestwick Airport demands that their personnel and aircraft are ready to go at all times. The Flight’s reaction time is highly sensitive and could not be provided to the author. A quick look at a UK map helps illustrate why Prestwick Airport is such a key part of the process due to its location and as a forward operating base in terms of providing onwards logistics support. 

With Prestwick Airport located 40 miles and approximately 20 minutes flying time from His Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde (more commonly known as Faslane), it is easy to understand just how important its location is. Faslane is home to the UK’s submarine fleet; more specifically the UK’s new generation of hunter-killer submarines, and other key components of the Nation’s Trident Missile system. As a forward operating base, Prestwick Airport also provides logistics support to deployed helicopters and sea-going assets.

Support at Sea

Whilst the Merlin HM2’s range is extensive it is not unlimited hence external support is required if extra fuel is required or if the helicopter needs to land for any reason. There are obviously a number of routes Russian vessels could take which would require UK monitoring. Frequently, Russian ships travel up from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, past France where they will either go around the outside of the UK, or take the short cut through the Channel. Travelling into or out from the Atlantic Ocean to or from Russia’s Northern Fleet bases, the only route available for a Russian submarine is through the Iceland/Greenland gap, the Iceland/Faroe Islands gap or the Faroe Islands/Shetland gap. Basically the Russian fleet has strategic choke points to navigate through. Under ideal circumstances, a Merlin HM2 from 814 NAS would deploy aboard the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS), which is a Type 23 Frigate specialising in Anti-Submarine Warfare. These will soon be replaced with the new, City Class Type 26 Frigates. From on board the Type 23, the deployed Merlin HM2 is perfectly placed to launch out into the open ocean to localise and track Russian Submarines. It is from this position, that advanced open ocean ASW can be carried out, away from home base, for extended periods of time.

It could be argued that the UK will always remain a high profile global player whilst we retain our nuclear deterrent. The defence of our nuclear submarines effectively comes down to what is the best way of counteracting an unfriendly submarine. The best way of dealing with that threat is with another submarine and knowing where the enemy is. It is therefore vital we continue to track these unfriendly submarines as they pass by UK sensitive waters in order to protect our own submarines.

Gunner Aal exercise

Training constitutes a vital part of being ready and for this purpose, the Royal Navy’s submarine hunters travelled to Norway during June/July 2023 to pit their wits against Norwegian and German sub-surface foes. For exercise Gruner Aal (Green Eel) approximately 100 men and women plus three Merlin HM2 helicopters, based themselves at the cliff top base of Haakonsvern near Bergen for this hugely challenging exercise. With the extensive and high quality facilities, UK personnel dubbed the base “Tracy Island’ from the Thunderbirds! 

“First and foremost, this was an opportunity for our trainee aircrew from 824 Naval Air Squadron to complete the final stages of operational flying training in the Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopter. It also gave them the experience of locating and tracking real submarines and enhanced the skills and techniques they will now take to the Merlin Helicopter Force frontline Squadrons”; Captain Stuart Irwin, Commanding Officer of RNAS Culdrose said.

“With little darkness at this time of the year, aircrew worked 12 hour day’s which provided them with plenty of opportunities to pit their wits against their NATO opposition. Anti-submarine warfare is as vital in today’s world as it ever was, with our reliance on undersea pipelines and global commitments. Merlin Helicopter Force is very much a part of defending that critical national infrastructure, and we regularly operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Arctic”; Captain Irwin confirmed. 

Commodore Trond Gimmingsrd, the Chief of the Norwegian naval fleet said; “The Royal Navy and Norwegian Navy have worked together on a number of exercises and operations lately confirming our commitment and ability to work seamlessly. During Gruner Aal, we have also worked together with the German Navy, improving our understanding and skills in anti-submarine warfare. The ability to operate from the same base and with short distance to the exercise area has allowed us to frequently share experiences between German and Norwegian submarines and British Merlins. That has made us all the better, and I am already looking forward to the next iteration of this annual exercise”

There is no doubt that RNAS Culdrose and the personnel deployed derived the maximum training benefit possible from this particular exercise. It is clear that operating a Merlin at long distance, away from home or a firm landing spot, at low level, in the dark and in poor weather conditions is a fairly sobering experience. 814 NAS are required to provide a response to a threat which is active all day, every day, all year, and this requires a huge team effort involving intelligence networks, logistics support, maintenance, aircrew, and maritime ship support. The UK has maintained a continuous at sea nuclear deterrent for more than 50 years now and it will continue. 

AeroResource would very like to thank the Royal Navy, Merlin Helicopter Force and of course, 814 Naval Air Squadron for their support without whom this article would not have been possible.

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