The UK Royal Marines first improved Merlin Mk4 performed its maiden flight earlier in the week at the Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.
Working under a 2014-contract worth £330 million (€400), engineers from Leonardo are converting 25 Royal Air Force AW101 Merlin Mk.3 and Mk3A helicopters to replace the Royal Navy’s fleet of Sea King Mk4 helicopters.
Much better adapted to operations at sea than the Mk3 it is replacing, the new helicopters will be the mainstay of Commando Helicopter Force for the next decade and beyond.
The Royal Marines’ Mk4 is now maritime grey not battlefield green (although it’s easily distinguishable from its submarine-hunting Mk2 sisters by the lack of a sonar dome under the cockpit).
A folding main rotor head and folding tail which make it much more suited to operating from Royal Navy carriers and assault ships at sea. In addition, inside the crew of four have access to a vastly-improved avionics suite.
The Royal Navy expects the first Mk4 to be ready for front-line operations by late 2017, with the entire fleet of 25 converted by the end of 2020.
At present the two troop-carrying squadrons of Commando Helicopter Force, based at RNAS Yeovilton – 845 and 846 NAS – operate the Mk3 and Mk3i (the latter has undergone enhancements and improvements which plug the gap between Nos.3 and 4).