The new addition to the Royal Navy’s Merlin family of aircraft has been conducting sea trials onboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Lyme Bay, operating daily from the Fleet Air Arm’s West Cornwall Base.
The Green Merlin Mk 3 has recently been transferred from the RAF to the RN “Junglie” Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) and trials activity is now under way to take the aircraft on board HM Ships.
A trials aircraft, crewed by a team from Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron (RWTES) and QinetiQ engineers, based at MOD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire have been putting the new Junglie helicopter through its paces.
Working on board RFA Lyme Bay they have been checking that the safety clearances, already in place for the Mk 2 Merlin are similarly valid for the Mk 3, and it is safe to operate at sea.
Lieutenant Commander Nigel Gates of Joint Helicopter Command Operational Evaluation Unit (JHC- OEU) is one of the Royal Navy pilots conducting the trials.
“It’s the first time that the Mk 3’s operated at Sea,” said Nigel. “At the end of the day it is a Merlin so we know most of its characteristics already and roughly what to expect. In the back of the aircraft we have a team of QinetiQ engineers whose job it is to analysis all the data we collect, as we fly the Merlin on and off Lyme Bay’s deck. We’re checking that it can operate safely in all wind conditions and if necessary recommend changes to the clearances.”
The team has been working out of RNAS Culdrose throughout the trial period, changing the aircraft’s weight and landing position across the deck.
These results will go a long way to determine how Green Navy Merlins will be used in the future with CHF and in particular flying from the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
Nigel continues, “So far we’ve found that the Mk 3 has a little bit more power available, which helps with the worst wind conditions. We’ve also done trials with Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and in-flight refueling with the aircraft, known as HIFR. The Data will help us with future Mk 3 operations, but more importantly this is preparing the way for the Mk 4 Merlin.
“This will be what emerges from the Agusta Westland conversion program for the Mk 3 to make it optimized for ship operations. The Mk 4 will have a folding rotor head and tail section as well, like the current Anti-submarine Grey Merlin Mk 2’s.”
Strengthened steel tie down points and heavier wheels have also been added, giving the current Merlin Mk 3 an all up weight (AUW) of around 14.6 tonnes. The Mk 4 will have a bigger AUW of around 15.6 tonnes.
Nigel comes from a Junglie background, although as a test pilot he has been involved with the Merlin Mk 2 programme as well, he sees a lot of similarity, “its good working with new aircraft and a very interesting time to be involved”.