I fulfilled a long-held ambition a few weeks ago, when I got the chance to tick another UK military aircraft type – AgustaWestland’s EH101 – off in my flight log. Surprisingly though, it turns out that Merlins (as EH101s are known in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy rotorhead communities) are a bit like London buses: wait long enough for one and two will turn up at the same time.
I’ve been writing about the Merlin for quite a few years now, and one of my most exotic media trips was linked to the early development of the RN’s HM1 version. This came in March 2000, when I visited the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre, or AUTEC, on Andros Island in the Bahamas. But I had never been given the opportunity to fly in the type until I recorded a double milestone during a UK Defence Logistics Organisation (DLO)-run media visit to RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall last month.
The Merlin seems to have been around for a very long time now, but the DLO describes the RAF and RN aircraft as “fleets in growth”, and adds that it will not be until next year that the type will be declared as having reached full operational capability. This will represent the frontline availability at any one time of 15 of the RAF’s 22 Merlin HC3 transports and 30 of the RN’s remaining 42 Merlin HM1 anti-submarine warfare/multi-mission helicopters; another two of which have been destroyed in accidents.
After touring the UK Defence Aviation and Repair Agency’s Fleetlands site – home to “depth” maintenance of the UK’s AgustaWestland Lynx, Westland Sea King and Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters (including a damaged Chinook HC2 freshly returned from Afghanistan) – I hopped aboard a navy Merlin HM1 for the flight to Culdrose. Also travelling with us were a second RN aircraft and a Merlin HC3 from the RAF’s 28 Sqn.
Sitting at one of the rear operator’s consoles in the 824 NAS-operated aircraft, it was hard to believe that the HM1 is on track to receive a major systems upgrade worth ｣750 million ($1.4 billion), as at first glance its flat screen displays and sophisticated lay-out seem cutting edge. But some of the aircraft’s computer systems were already obsolete before the aircraft entered frontline use, making it difficult and expensive to support, and crew members say the operating system is cumbersome to use, due to its lack of touch-screen controls. With new displays and an open architecture mission system the aircraft will be easier to use and simpler to modernise in the future, they say.
The HM1 offers a really smooth ride – so much so in fact that when I moved to a forward-facing seat at the rear of the aircraft about half an hour into our 90min flight I even managed to go to sleep for about 15min. After descending through the clouds and into a murky Cornwall afternoon our tour resumed with a look at the Merlin depth maintenance facilities at Culdrose, which are used to support aircraft for both services.
My flight back to Fleetlands was in an RAF Merlin, call-signed Vortex. This feels like a different beast to the RN aircraft due to its large and largely empty rear cabin; it’s only once you sit facing sideways inside the EH101 with the HC3′s tail ramp open that you get a real sense of the platform’s size. The ride wasn’t as smooth as in the HM1, as you’d expect in a troop transport, but it was still a very different experience from riding in a Chinook. It’s also an odd experience kneeling up front and chatting to your helicopter pilots for five minutes before realising that neither of them are actually doing anything much, thanks to the Merlin’s autopilot.
Admittedly the UK still has some little way to go to get the best out of its maturing Merlin fleets, but planned upgrades to the HM1 and improved support and maintenance systems for both types are already beginning to make a difference on aircraft availability rates. With the RAF still maintaining a detachment of around five Merlins at Basra in southern Iraq, that can only be a good thing.
If you have an opinion about the Merlin or another nation’s EH101s then I’d welcome your comments below.