For the last time a Royal Navy Sea King has appeared in European skies after completing its final mission on the Continent.
For two weeks, a helicopter from 849 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose has been directing the actions of supersonic F-16 jets over the North Sea and northern Holland – a key stepping stone for working with the UK’s new F-35 stealth fighters in a couple of years time.
It’s the task of 849 with their distinctive radar-equipped helicopters to scour the skies for threats to a naval group – and to direct interceptors such as the F-16 Falcons in for the kill if necessary.
It took the veteran helicopter eight hours to cover the 500 miles from its base in western Cornwall to Leeuwarden in Frisia, north-eastern Netherlands.
A 40-strong detachment of air and ground crew was dispatched to the Dutch Air Force Base for Exercise Skinners’ Gold 4 – an exercise the squadron has attended in previous run-outs.
The Sea King Mk7 flew eight night missions with its observer/radar operator in the back of the helicopter choreographing the movements of up to four Dutch jets at a time either using voice commands or by using the military’s data-sharing system, Link 16.
The Brits guided their Dutch colleagues to intercept up to half a dozen ‘enemy’ jets at a time – which proved to be an invaluable training for 849, particularly as the scenarios played out over Dutch and North Sea skies could not to be recreated back in the UK.
It all helps pave the way for the Sea King’s replacement, Crowsnest – a Merlin Mk2 helicopter fitted with a similar, but more modern radar/sensor suite which will operate from the flight decks of new carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.
The Brits were hosted by 322 ‘Polly’ Squadron (after a parrot mascot they received from London Zoo 70 years ago) and accommodated in a hardened bunker next to the Dutch F16 HQ, which spared them some of the cold temperatures (which hovered around zero for most of Skinner’s Gold).
The weekend break between the two weeks of the exercise allowed most of the team to explore the Netherlands, many of the engineers and aircrew heading to Amsterdam just a couple of hours away from the air base.
“It’s important that we get these opportunities to relax and experience a different culture, especially for the more junior members of our detachment,” said observer Lt Ben Selwood.
“For them to see that the Royal Navy is not all about hard work is invaluable and has provided a good chance for them to bond with those they work with outside of the often hectic work environment.”
With the exception of a couple of Baggers – the name comes from the trademark radar sack/bag on the side of the fuselage – operating in the Middle East, the fortnight in Leeuwarden was the last overseas detachment for the squadron.
The helicopters are due to be retired in September, bringing the curtain down on 49 years’ service with the Fleet Air Arm. To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of a Spitfire flying on front-line duties for the RAF in 1987…