Annual exercises inside the Arctic Circle prepare UK commandos for cold-weather operation.


THERE IS NO secret art to operating successfully in Arctic conditions - it is a matter of careful training. As a result, every winter since 1969, UK Royal Navy Commando aircrew and maintenance personnel have been sent to the RN "Clockwork" detachment at Bardufoss, a Royal Norwegian Air Force base 260km (160 miles) inside the Arctic Circle, for cold weather and mountain-warfare training.

The operational area around Bardufoss not only provides a harsh Arctic environment, but also a mountain flying area with peaks rising to 5,000ft (1,525m), steep-sided valleys and ideal low-level navigation areas, below and above the tree line. It also includes a coastal region, with a fjord terrain, and high, windswept, plains and tundra regions inland. This part of northern Norway is unpopulated, allowing operational flying and theatre-conversion training to be undertaken at any time.

Flying and operating in the Arctic winter is a matter of applying known techniques to overcome a hostile environment, and everything at Clockwork is geared to this end. Those being trained know that what they experience at Clockwork will probably be the most difficult conditions that they will ever have to conquer. If they can operate effectively here, they can do so anywhere.

The training programme consists of two major parts, - survival and military training, and Arctic flying and aircraft- maintenance training. None of those undertaking the course, is considered a "student" in the proper sense - they are all from front-line squadrons, and many of the pilots and aircrew will already have been flying operationally, for some time in other regions of the world.

There are two RN Commando Westland Sea King units, Naval Air Squadrons (NAS) 845 and 846. There are, also usually, two Clockwork training courses each winter, with Clockwork One in January, dedicated to 846NAS and Clockwork Two in February for 845NAS. During the winter of 1995-6, 845 and 846NAS provided five Sea King HC4s for ab initio training of personnel, who needed to refamiliarise themselves with Arctic operations.


The programme starts with two weeks of survival and military training, which includes a full lecture programme and operational and local-area briefs, followed by up to four nights in the field under canvas. The main training phase takes place in early January, when aircraft and personnel return from the field to Clockwork for four weeks of flying, which culminates in a final operational deployment known as "FOBEX" (Forward Operating Base Exercise). This requires ground and air crews, to undertake flying and ground training, within a tactical scenario, with aircraft and personnel operating from a fully dispersed, forward-operating base (FOB).

Each aircraft is operated by three aircrew and seven maintenance engineers, from a single site known as an, "Eagle Base". This is autonomous and can be packed up and moved, using its aircraft, should it come under attack. A FOB usually consists of four Eagle Bases, plus a command post.

During their Clockwork training, personnel gain experience of all the problems associated with severe cold-weather operations. Maintenance personnel are expected to work on their aircraft out in the open because, once stationed at Bardufoss, the Sea Kings are "cold soaked" and remain outside permanently, often in temperatures down to -30°C.


Trainees must learn how to survive in the Arctic without getting frostbite, and they must also be prepared to fight to defend their aircraft at an Eagle Base out in the field. In addition, they learn how to protect aircraft from the environment, using covers, and how to prepare them for flying in severe cold conditions. When gearbox-oil temperatures drop to below -20°C, portable Viking heaters are used to preheat engines and gearboxes before flying. Ground crews are trained to operate in temperatures of -30°C, although, below this temperature, most of their efforts are concentrated on survival.

Aircrew training consists of a series of lectures and briefings on local-area operations, and around 20 flying hours are dedicated to general Arctic-flying training, which includes night-vision-goggle (NVG) operations, below and above the tree line. Eight hours are assigned to the FOBEX.

The course covers a full range of subjects, from aircraft-icing limitations to Arctic troop drills, weight restrictions and basic Arctic flying skills, including landing techniques in recirculating snow. Pilots have to land on mountain peaks and undertake simulated troop-insertions in mountain regions above the tree line by day and by night, using NVGs. The syllabus also covers day and night navigation skills, Arctic troop drills and load lifting in recirculating snow.

Norway not only provides Arctic cold, but also a wide variation of weather conditions within a short space of time and distance. The weather can quickly change and catch out the unwary, and a great deal of time is spent on proper flight and mission planning and in choosing the safest routes to complete missions safely and successfully. During even the shortest journey, weather can range from clear skies and low temperatures on take-off, to a quick thaw, low cloud, then rain and always the ever-present threat of icing, all within the space of a few kilometres.

The country provides an environment in which it is not easy to operate, making it the ideal training ground.

Source: Flight International