The wings of the Royal Marines are ready for action with their French counterparts after a month’s training aboard the FS Mistral.
Two Merlins from 845 NAS are assigned to the assault ship throughout her six-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific Oceans – the first time the green Merlins have gone on operations since they joined the Commando Helicopter Force.
Ready to begin a unique job in earnest are 60 men and women from the Commando Helicopter Force as their core mission with a French task group gets under way.
Sailing aboard the assault ship Mistral, the detachment of Merlin helicopters is ready for five months of intensive operations and exercises in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The personnel and their two troop-carrying Merlin helicopters have spent a month getting used to operating from and life aboard the Mistral as she sailed through the Mediterranean from Toulon.
The Brits from 845 Naval Air Squadron at Yeovilton are assigned to the ship for six months as she leads the French Navy’s annual amphibious deployment, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), transporting troops and their equipment ashore – exactly as they would do from HMS Ocean or Albion.
It’s not only a unique deployment for the Merlins – it’s their very first operation since transferring to the Commando Helicopter Force from the RAF.
Three crew – two pilots, two aircrewmen in the back of the helicopter, responsible for the safety of passengers, manning guns when fitted and helping to navigate at low altitude or in tight spots – plus 50 engineers and technicians will remain with the Mistral, which is a cross between a helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship, throughout her mission.
Mistral will take the commando fliers as far east as Japan and Guam and as far south as the northern coast of Australia, with visits to Vietnam, Singapore and Sri Lanka on the 24,000-mile round-trip.
Pilot Lieutenant Steve ‘Doffty’ Doughty is responsible for language training, translating on behalf of his countrymen and creating a ‘useful phrase book’ to allow our sailors to communicate with their French opposite numbers.
Such as the PRERAM – présentations au ravitaillement à la mer – as routine in the French as it is in the Royal Navy, except that Brits call it a RAS, replenishment at sea, taking on board fuel and supplies while on the move.
“It’s quite a challenge coming up with a communication plan, especially as the majority of our sailors don’t speak a word of French,” Lt Doughty explains.
“We are relying on the few fluent French speakers we have and the patience of the French, many of whom speak perfect English.”
Not only are French speakers few in number in the British detachment, but many of the personnel are novices – the Mistral is their first experience of life at sea – and some of the pilots have only recently qualified on the Merlin.
They used the passage across the Med and trip south through Suez and the Red Sea to get used to French routines, safety procedures and methods, and above all taking off from and landing on a flight deck – even if it is one 650ft long.
Both Lt Steve ‘Stingers’ Irwin and Lt Doughty needed to earn their deck qualifications before they could consider exercises and operations with the French and 125 American marines embarked upon the Mistral.
Both pilots were required to complete 24 deck landings: eight by day, 16 by night (eight wearing night vision goggles and eight without).
“It’s great to finally be able to get to sea and carry out deck landings – it’s seen as a milestone to becoming a true Naval pilot and I’m really happy to have achieved it,” said Lt Doughty.
The weather hasn’t always been kind with the Merlins moving to Mistral’s hangar when heavy rain and wind are forecast. As the helicopters weren’t designed for operating from a French ship, it means engineers have to remove all four rotor blades so the 14 tonne machines can fit on the ship’s lift.
Now the commando detachment has got used to these and other foibles of life aboard a French warship, they are beginning to enjoy the experience.
“It’s been an interesting first leg of the deployment with the members of the squadron, the ship’s crew of the Mistral, a French Army Gazelle helicopter detachment, French and US Marines all working together,” said Lt Pete ‘Creasy’ Crease.
“The company of FS Mistral have been extremely accommodating, changing their routines where possible in order to make life easier for the many different detachments onboard.”
The Jeanne d’Arc group, which also includes the frigate FS Courbet, is now heading for Mumbai in India then Malaysia and on to Japan.