Merlins of 820 Naval Air Squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose have joined HMS Illustrious in the Channel for seven weeks in the hands of the Navy’s most exacting training organisation, Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST).
Fresh from a £40m refit, HMS Illustrious has begun two months of intensive training off the South Coast and when the training is complete, the Portsmouth-based warship will be the nation’s on-call helicopter carrier, ready for global missions.
The seven-week package tests the 750-plus men and women aboard on everything the 22,000-tonne ship might be expected to deal with in the real world, for in the new year she’ll be Britain’s on-call helicopter carrier, taking over from HMS Ocean which is currently deployed east of Suez.
For the Merlins of 820 Squadron and Lynx helicopters from 702 Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton
it’s a chance to reacquaint themselves with their traditional role of operating en masse from an aircraft carrier. The helicopters’ presence means Illustrious’s flight deck is in operation pretty much at all hours of the day and night and the FOST staff have lots of challenges in store for the crew: dealing with battle damage, crashes on deck, machinery fires, tracking and destroying incoming aerial threats and many others.
Commander Jason Phillips, the Commanding Officer of 820 Squadron said: “820 Squadron personnel are delighted to be back in the carrier, HMS ILLUSTRIOUS in particular, which has been our home for many years in the past. Sea Training offers a challenge to all, but a great opportunity to integrate as a team and demonstrate the flexibility and capability of delivering air power from the sea”.
Although there are many experienced people onboard the ship there are also many in HMS Illustrious’ ship’s company for whom this is their first taste of the FOST experience. “For all the sailors on board there’s undoubtedly a sense of excitement and eagerness taking Illustrious through her first Operational Sea Training since emerging from refit a few months ago,” said Capt Jerry Kyd, the carrier’s Commanding Officer.
“We will be put through a very demanding training period up until Christmas, honing our fighting skills, before we become the UK’s on-call helicopter carrier early next year. We are ready for both the training – and whatever the Government asks us to do in the future.”