It's back to the desert for commando helicopter crews
Westcountry helicopter crews are back in the desert skies - but this time in the more peaceful surroundings of Jordan.
The Command Helicopter Force (CHF), the wings of the Royal Marines, were last flying in arrid, dusty conditions of Afghanistan two years ago.
But with a surge of new blood on board, they decided it was time to hone specialist desert skills once more and are currently deployed in Exercise Pashtun Commando in the Middle East kingdom.
The RNAS Yeovilton based squadron is spending six weeks in the southern Jordanian port of Aqaba and, many members, like pilot Lt Chris Gayson, had never operated in the unique conditions.
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“I was initially quite apprehensive and unsure what to expect from the hostile desert environment,” he said.
“Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait to get started and add to the skills I had already learned in flying training.
“The prospect of losing all visual references during the final approach was a touch unsettling, but under the watchful eye of experienced instructors, I was able to apply the techniques and get to grips with desert flying.
“As if landing in a dust cloud wasn't a big enough challenge, the syllabus soon progressed on to load lifting and formation landings by day and night.”
Lt Nick Hallatt said Jordan’s desert offered challenging flying conditions.
“Without wishing to sound like a British Rail spokesman talking about the wrong type of snow, the characteristics of the dust in Jordan have put an extra burden on the aircraft,” he said.
“The teams have worked tirelessly to keep up the pace of flying.”
The Sea Kings of 845 Naval Air Squadron, one of three front-line Fleet Air Arm units which serve the green berets, are nicknamed the Junglies, a nod to the hero helicopter squadrons who flew audacious missions in Borneo half a century ago.
Pashtun Commando has also tested the men of the commando and parachute trained Commando Mobile Air Operations Team whose task it is to first find, then secure and finally establish a helicopter landing site – deep in the desert and within enemy terrain.
Detachment Commander, Lt Cdr Edwin Adams, said every facet of CHF has been tested in and above the sands of Jordan on Pashtun Commando.
“The exercise has proved hugely beneficial for all members of the detachment,” he said.
“Clearly the main aim is to train and refresh aircrew in desert flying techniques. I have never experienced an environment so challenging and similar to that in Afghanistan.”
Operating in hot and high conditions brings “significant challenges” to the entire team, he added.
“ Even the medical team and stores department have their challenges to overcome, with ambient conditions and difficulties in working with other nations.”
Once the six week training schedule is complete, the CHF will be joining Westcountry ships and personnel who are taking part in the Cougar 13 exercise which is currently in the Mediterranean.