UK RAF launches Afghan work-up with Merlin helicopters

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The UK Royal Air Force has launched a four-month series of environmental training exercises in the USA intended to prepare crews of its AgustaWestland Merlin HC3/3A (AW101) transport helicopters for deployment to Afghanistan.

The move comes as the service's hard-working fleet of Boeing CH-47 Chinooks was temporarily depleted following the first loss of an aircraft in the country's Helmand Province.

RAF Merlins arrived at the US Navy's El Centro training facility near San Diego, California in late August to participate in Exercise Merlin Vortex. The aircraft were flown to the site using RAF Boeing C-17 strategic transports.

 
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The 15t-class Merlins will be flown initially by crews from the three flights that form the RAF's 78 Sqn, with their training to be focused on "hot and high" operations, dust landings and in honing self-defence procedures, the service says.

 
 © Craig Hoyle/Flight International
RAF Merlin crews have conducted previous similar training in Morocco

The UK's last Merlin HC3s to have been deployed on operations in Iraq since 2005 returned to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire in early August, and the type is scheduled to make its debut in Afghanistan before year-end. The type will receive theatre entry-standard modifications including BERP IV main rotor blades and enhanced defensive aids system equipment before their operational deployment.

An RAF Chinook was destroyed on 19 August after making an emergency landing in hostile territory in Helmand province, with a fire having broken out in one of its engines during an operational mission.

"The crew escaped without injury, and were immediately extracted by another Chinook," the RAF says. "The helicopter was later deliberately destroyed by a coalition airstrike to deny it from enemy forces."

A Board of Inquiry has been convened to confirm the cause of the accident, but the service says that the aircraft had been "under heavy fire from the Taliban" at the time. The incident, which represented the first loss of an RAF Chinook since the type was deployed to Afghanistan in early 2006, happened the day before the country's presidential elections. A spare UK aircraft was already in theatre, and was rapidly prepared for use as a replacement.