Navy Merlins at world’s biggest submarine hunt

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Flying sorcery from Navy Merlins at world’s biggest submarine hunt off Sicily
14 March 2012

Two Merlins from 820 Naval Air Squadron in Culdrose flew a 2,800-mile round trip to take part in the world’s biggest anti-submarine exercise, NATO’s Proud Manta.

The aircraft – widely acknowledged as the world’s best anti-submarine hunting helicopter – spent a fortnight at Sigonella airbase near Mount Etna so they could hunt five boats lurking in the Ionian Sea.

Pictures: Lt Cdr Dave Thomas, 820 NAS, and NATO

Flying over the barren landscape of France’s Tarn valley – and past the tallest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct – the world’s best submarine hunting helicopter makes for the world’s biggest submarine hunt.

Two Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose left Cornwall behind and flew 1,400 miles across Europe to Sicily in the search for five boats lurking in the Ionian Sea for NATO’s annual Proud Manta Exercise.

The two-week-long war games, played out off the east coast of the Italian island, saw naval air and surface forces gather to track down submarines from France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey and hone their sub-hunting skills, while the boats practised their evasive skills.

Passing the coastline of Sardinia

The team from 820 – one of two Merlin squadrons which can deploy en masse with the Navy’s two helicopter carriers – flew air and ground crew out to the US Naval Air Station at Sigonella, 15 miles south of Mount Etna.

Once in Sicily, the squadron flew their Merlins alongside helicopters (including Italian Merlins of the Marina Militare) and fixed-wing aircraft from NATO partners, working with NATO ships to counter underwater threats played by NATO submarines.

The two helicopters notched up 66 hours during the exercise – flying more airborne time and more missions than any other nation participating… and, more importantly, they managed to detect – and carry out simulated attacks against – the boats they found beneath the sea.

The fin and hull of Italian submarine ITS Todero can clearly be seen in the azure waters of the Ionian Sea

Thanks to its sonar, Merlin is renowned for its ability to find submarines which don’t want to be found – but at times the conditions in the Ionian Sea meant the distinctive outline of a boat could be seen with the naked eye by an aircraft overhead.

“Plenty of simulated attacks were carried out by the Merlins and the aircrew gained valuable insight into how our NATO partners operate and also demonstrate to them the awesome submarine-hunting capability that is the Merlin helicopter,” said Lt Cdr Stuart Finn, Senior Observer and the 820 detachment commander.

“The challenges posed by operating at a foreign base far from home were also met with gusto by the engineering team, engendering a close relationship with our Italian Merlin colleagues in order to provide serviceable aircraft for the exercise missions.

“Proud Manta 2012 was an extremely valuable exercise for us.”

Hyères force one... The two Merlins parked on the hard standing at the southern French airbase

In addition to the aircraft and submarines, a sizeable force of surface ships took part in the two weeks of Proud Manta, including vessels from NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 1, destroyers from France and Italy, an Italian frigate, two Italian auxiliary ships, a US cruiser and destroyer and a NATO research vessel. 

“The assets put into this year’s exercise really allowed us to put all the players through complex and escalating scenarios. We had enough ships, planes and people engaged that we could really simulate plenty of threats – and therefore train hard in how to work together to deal with and neutralise those threats,” said Capt Walter Luthiger of the US Navy, chief planner for the exercise.

Including the flights across Europe to and from Sigonella, 115 hours in total were clocked up by the two aircraft, ‘lilypadding’ at military airbases on the way to relax and refuel, including Hyères, near Toulon in southern France.

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