AgustaWestland will begin “marinising” the first Merlin HC3/3A aircraft for use by the UK Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force in early October, shortly after ownership transfers from the Royal Air Force on 30 September.

The initial seven “Phase 1” helicopters will only receive relatively minor modifications at the airframer’s Yeovil, Somerset facility, including the integration of a powered folding main rotor head and a number of tie-down points and undercarriage alterations. This will allow the navy to field an interim ship-borne capability once its Sea King HC4/4+ fleet is retired from April 2016, says AgustaWestland. The Sea Kings will be progressively withdrawn from 2015.

Deliveries of the 25 Merlin HC4s covered by the £330 million ($560 million) contract will run from 2015 until 2020. The second tranche of helicopters, to be fielded from 2017, will additionally receive an automatic main rotor and tail-fold system, and avionics upgrade, bringing their cockpits to the same standard as the RN’s multimission Merlin HM2 fleet.

Work on these helicopters under the separate Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme is now more than half-way towards completion, with the final aircraft having arrived at Yeovil for conversion. So far, the service has received 18 of the enhanced rotorcraft.