Helicopters from the Royal Navy Auxiliary Fort Victoria have been providing direct front-line support to daily strikes from the French carrier Charles De Gaulle against Daesh in the Middle East.
The distinctive Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control Mk7 helicopters are scouring Gulf skies and seas for any potential threat to the carrier, whose flight deck is launching Rafale and Super Étendard jets on combat missions against the fundamentalists.
It’s a mission the Sea Kings, normally based at Culdrose in Cornwall, were designed for.
But for much of the past decade, the aircraft, known as Baggers spent most of their time high above Afghanistan, flying 800 missions, tracking the movements of insurgents and terrorists, helping ground troops make 150 arrests and seize tonnes of drugs, weapons and bomb-making ingredients.
High over the Gulf, the eyes of the crews are fixed both on the present and the daily strikes by the French – their ground and carrier-based jets are conducting around 100 missions per week – and on the future and the return of Royal Navy fast jet operations when HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales enter service with F-35 stealth fighters.
To that end, as well as carrying out surveillance, the Sea King crews have been directing French NH-90 helicopters and Rafale fighter jets to maintain their fighter controller skills.
Lieutenant Jonathan Duke, one of three pilots with Okinawa Flight, the detachment from 849 Naval Air Squadron which is using supply ship RFA Fort Victoria as its launchpad for operations, said: “It’s great to see how the French operate. With our own carriers on the way, there are lots of lessons that we can learn to ensure that we are ready for them.”
Although most of the Sea King force retires next month – the red and grey Search and Rescue units at HMS Gannet and 771 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose, and the green ‘flying cavalry’ of the Royal Marines in the Commando Helicopter Force at Yeovilton – the Baggers continue to act as the eyes of the Fleet until 2018.