A familiar sight in skies above Cornwall and Devon but less so elsewhere, AeroResource considers the unique and specialised operations of the FOST Dauphin helicopter which performs an important role on behalf of the Royal Navy.

For those living in the United Kingdom’s most western counties, the sight of Hawk T1A’s from 736 Naval Air Squadron (based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall) operating alongside Draken Aviation Falcon 20Cs (based at Bournemouth International Airport, Dorset) plus other NATO and foreign participants conducting Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) has been a familiar one for many years. Equally familiar in some respects albeit less well known, is the significant supportive role played by two Aérospatiale AS365 N2 Dauphins (now Airbus Helicopters) which have supported FOST and its experts who operate out of the Royal Navy bases in Plymouth, Devon, and the Clyde in Scotland with a small team based at Northwood in Middlesex. FOST provides operational sea training for all surface ships, submarines and Royal Fleet Auxiliaries of the Royal Navy. These two unique helicopters and its specialised aircrew facilitate a range of vitally important FOST missions which includes transportation of senior Staff Officers, participation in major NATO exercises such as Exercise Joint Warrior, and radar trials. 

It should be noted that due to the sensitivities surrounding the aircraft’s operational role, it was not possible to include quotations. Aircrew and other personnel within the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (MoD) supported the production of this article in full.


British International Helicopters (BIH) has operated the helicopter support programme on behalf of the Royal Navy for more than a decade with these two AS365 N2 Dauphins. Before that, both aircraft were owned by Bond Helicopters, which managed the FOST programme from 1997. Despite carrying Royal Navy titles, both helicopters are unusual in that they carry military registrations (ZJ164 and ZJ165) despite their civilian ownership. At the present time, only ZJ165 is available to fulfil the wide variety of tasks required. For many years, BIH has supported operations in the Falkland Islands and South Atlantic Islands using two civilian-registered Sikorsky S-61Ns and Leonardo Helicopters AW189’s which are based at Mount Pleasant Airfield. In previous years, this role has also been undertaken by the S-61. 

Based at Newquay Cornwall Airport, this small but unique Dauphin fleet has performed an important role for a number of years, operating primarily from Newquay and Kinterbury Point Helicopter Landing Site in His Majesty’s Navy Base Plymouth, Devon.


Airbus Helicopters AS365 N Dauphin (formerly Aérospatiale and Eurocopter) has been in production approximately 40 years and it remains one of their most popular and successful helicopter designs. The aircrafts base concept dates from the 1970’s with the single-engined Aérospatiale AS360 which was soon succeeded by the more powerful, twin-engined AS365 N during the early 1980s as Aérospatiale recognized that two engines is more suitable to both commercial and military operations. The aircraft also later received an improved cabin arrangement, retractable landing gear plus a redesigned Fenestron anti-torque device (fantail or protected tail rotor). The N variant was subsequently used as the militarised version of the Dauphin which has proven so successful with a diverse range of global operators performing tasks which include general utility, troop transport, medical evacuation, Search and Rescue and other maritime operations. These operators include the United States Coast Guard, France and China (manufactured under license by Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation) where the Dauphin is known as the HH-65 Dolphin, Panther and the Harbin Z-9 respectively. 

Deliveries of the N2 variant commenced in 1990. Its features include upgraded twin 549 kW (737 shp) Arriel 1C2 turboshaft engines, uprated gearbox, increased maximum take-off weight of 9,370 lb (4,250 kg) (9,370 lb), redesigned cabin doors and revised interior plus an enlarged tail fin and composite Fenestron. Interestingly, Bond Helicopters reportedly received the 500th Dauphin (February 1991). 

Subsequent variant updates include the N3, N3+ and N4 (produced by Eurocopter as the EC155 and then renamed H155 by Airbus Helicopters) which introduced uprated engines and transmission with full digital engine control (FADEC) and a redesigned ten-blade composite Fenestron anti-torque device which all contributed to enhanced performance. These updated versions also have a glass cockpit unlike the N2s analogue cockpit. 

In terms of aircraft numbers, Airbus Helicopters announced on January 21, 2022 when delivering the final AS365 N3 to the Spanish Customs Service, that over 1,100 Dauphin helicopters had been produced, flying seven million flying hours in 70 different countries. 

Fleet Officer Sea Training (FOST) aircrew

Operating the aircraft on behalf of the Royal Navy, this small experienced unit currently comprises two pilots and two crewmen. Aircrew have historically been ex-Royal Navy covering various types which includes Westland (now Leonardo Helicopters) Sea King and Lynx variants plus Merlin HM2. They are tasked by FOST to operate a five-day week with the aircraft available throughout the day to late at night. FOST aircrew are very experienced deck landing pilots given the variety of landings undertaken on an annual basis. Aircrew turnover is low and an age limit of 60 applies for single pilot flying. Two crews are required to operate the aircraft. In the past, crew workload was extremely high with aircrew accruing almost 500 flight hours per year; pretty much the maximum achievable. Flight hours achieved nowadays has reduced significantly from these heady heights simply because the volume of tasking has declined. Despite this, aircrew are on call to fly as required which means flying can be intense but also relatively quiet at other times. 

Flying a civilian owned aircraft, Civil Aircraft Agency (CAA) rules and regulations govern aircrew in terms of their flight currency requirements. However, from an operational perspective, the aircraft and aircrew are governed by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) which can create its own operational tensions. In essence, aircrew are bound by the same rules governing an operational military pilot but aircrew must operate in a manner which enables them to maintain their CAA licenses. 

Flying with a pilot and crewman, a FOST Dauphin is cleared to carry a strictly imposed maximum of six passengers. This restriction is imposed to ease egress and meet weight loading parameters; the aircraft will often carry heavy survival equipment and FOST personnel wearing full immersion suits which adds weight. Whilst the Dauphin could carry more personnel, any further weight would make it difficult to carry sufficient fuel to complete their missions. Aircrew confirm that the aircrafts maximum endurance is three hours although this is reduced substantially to approximately one hour plus with a full complement of six passengers wearing full immersion equipment. Such tasks therefore require careful planning when departing Newquay Cornwall Airport for example; travelling to Kinterbury Point to collect passengers, dropping them on a ship and then returning, flying the same route in reverse which amounts to approximately 105 minutes flying. 

FOST missions

As mentioned above, FOST provides operational sea training for all surface ships, submarines and Royal Fleet Auxiliaries of the Royal Navy. Working alongside Draken Aviation and other NATO aircraft, FOST conduct what is termed a ‘Thursday’ war which is when their experts conduct ship training and testing in concert with other squadrons and units as mentioned above. Because of the way these run, the Dauphin crew’s busiest days are therefore the Monday, Wednesday and sometimes Friday each week as they transport FOST personnel to and from the ships participating. Any Thursday transportation mainly involves Staff Officer Operations Taxi (SOOTAX) or VIP Taxi missions (VIPTAX) transportation which could include high-ranking military officials (including overseas), politicians or foreign dignitaries. In this respect, the Dauphin can be fitted with a winch at very short notice as they are required to winch personnel on to a ship if they cannot land. Crews also regularly work with the Royal Naval School of Flight Deck Operators based at Culdrose as they conduct their AIR230 deck landing training on their dummy deck (aka HMS Siskin). The capability of Dauphin in this role during various historic Joint Warrior exercises for example is well illustrated when aircraft and aircrew spent full days moving personnel to and from the participant warships for the exercise duration.

Outside these regular missions, the Dauphin is used to facilitate an array of other ship and flight deck training which includes circuits and landings, emergency and malfunction training, radar trials against flying targets and ships air traffic controller support. This might include general airborne instrument pattern work or specific simulated missions which might include attacking the ship as an aggressor Hawk T1A aircraft historically would; a role now completed by Draken’s Falcon 20 fleet. Other interesting specialist missions include those in support of 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery unit which is a specialist British Army and Royal Navy team tasked with calling in artillery and air strikes in support of UK Special Forces and 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. In this role, the Dauphin crew will collect the 148 team and a ‘spotter’ from ashore and fly them to a designation location at sea. Once in position approximately a mile from a designated target buoy, they will hold in the hover whilst the 148 team and spotter vector a ships gun fire on their command on to a target as they would in theatre. 

Working extensively with foreign Navies including the US Navy also helps keep work interesting for the Dauphin and its aircrew. There is no doubting the diversity and interesting nature of their work.  


As one can imagine, maintaining serviceability is a constant issue due to a lack of spare parts but AeroResource understands that the serviceability record of those used by FOST has been excellent over the many years with few missions lost. This long term record is even more impressive when one considers the hours on each aircraft (just one aircraft operating currently) and the conditions each has operated in at sea. The current aircraft have over 15,000 flying hours. With approximately five flying hours for each deck landing, this equates to approximately 3,000 deck landings which is a considerable number. Deck landings take a heavy toll on the aircraft. From a maintenance perspective, as a military registered aircraft, the Dauphin has the same maintenance requirements as the more modern Leonardo Helicopters Merlin HM2 or AW159 Wildcat HM1. 

How long exactly the Dauphin will continue in its present role is uncertain with no firm replacement date set. That said, following the release in April 2022 of a Royal Navy Request for Information (RFI) for a replacement helicopter to undertake a wider range of services, the Royal Navy are closer now than they have been for many years. According to the RFI, this would include the provision of land-based maritime airborne Search and Rescue (SAR) service for Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) force generation, as well as the requirement to transport personnel and/or freight to the Queen Elizabeth class carriers and other UK based Royal Navy shipping around the United Kingdom. Also specified within any Future Fleet Helicopter Support Unit (FHSU) contract is that these provisions would encompass the support of up to six United Kingdom base exercises per year with up to 24 hours flying per exercise, and approximately 100 flying hours per year supporting UK based Royal Navy shipping. The anticipated contract length is five years with the option to extend it. Leonardo Helicopters AW139 has long been considered a potential replacement helicopter although a final decision has yet to made. 

You can find out more about the Royal Navy FOST mission here: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/locations-and-operations/bases-and-stations/fost

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