Royal Air Force, September 27, 2013 - by Nikki Hamilton - The RAF Merlin Force is celebrating its return from 10 years of continual operational deployments following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The RAF Merlins, which are based at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire first deployed to Bosnia in 2003 and have since provided essential helicopter lift for land forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the first Merlin helicopters being delivered in 2001, the Merlin Force spent the next two years training relentlessly to operate the technologically sophisticated aircraft. On 31 March 2003 they achieved Initial Operating Capability and a day later they deployed to Bosnia in support of Operation OCULUS: the start of the Merlin Force’s enduring commitment to operations that has lasted for over 10 years.
The Merlin deployed to Bosnia in support of the UK’s continuing commitment to Peace Support Operations in the Balkans Region as part of the Stabilisation Force. The SFOR logo was fitted to the side of the aircraft and, from its base at the Banja Luka Metal Factory, the Merlin immediately set to work providing aviation support in the form of moving troops and supplies by air.
This routine support helicopter tasking was supplemented by more interesting tasks such as those of 24 April 2003, which saw multiple flights to downtown Sarajevo, the former Yugoslavian capital, to transport air conditioning units from Sarajevo Airport to the roof of the 21-floor UNIS Twin Towers. As time passed it was clear that the Merlin was proving to be a highly dependable and capable asset, taking on more sophisticated night tasking and the casualty and medical evacuation role.
After returning from Bosnia in late 2004, the Merlin Force retrained and redeployed in March 2005, this time to Iraq in support of Operation TELIC. Self-ferrying the 4500 mile journey in just 4 days, the Merlin Force was capable of undertaking in-theatre training and limited operational tasking within a day of arrival! In its first month in Iraq, the Merlin Force had flown over 300 hours, which saw the achievement of Full Operating Capability ahead of schedule. Quickly proving a key asset for Land Forces, the Merlin Force maintained aircraft and crews at high readiness to support operations by day and night, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Its numerous roles included the life-saving Incident Response Team that often deployed to the middle of a fire-fight to extract injured personnel and civilians. These unprecedented acts of bravery earned two aircraft captains the Distinguished Flying Cross: Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman and Flight Lieutenant Kevin Harris.
Following a return from operations in Iraq in late summer 2009, the Merlin Force quickly re-equipped and crews retrained to deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation HERRICK. The impressively swift turnaround of aircraft and crews was largely thanks to the excellent training undertaken during Exercise MERLIN VORTEX in the Californian desert. This saw crews obtain all the necessary environmental qualifications and experience to allow them to deploy with confidence to Afghanistan, where Initial Operating Capability was achieved almost a month ahead of schedule.
Delivering a high readiness capability on 30 minutes notice to move meant that the Merlin Force covered all manner of short notice reactive tasking. The standard troop and supply movements remained but were complemented with rapid casualty evacuation and becoming the platform of choice for the Counter Improvised Explosive Device Team - once again delivering life saving helicopter support to Land Forces.
Flying over 18,000 hours in the dust and heat of Helmand, the Merlin Force flew its final sortie at the end of May 2013, having moved over 7,900 tonnes of kit and transported over 130,000 troops. After a recovery operation, the Force has now all returned home to RAF Benson where it is busy training Royal Navy crews in the operation of the Merlin aircraft in preparation for its transition to a maritime role in 2016.
The Merlin Force Commander, Group Captain Nigel Colman, has a wealth of experience of support helicopter operations and led the Merlin Force to Afghanistan as the Officer Commanding 78 Squadron. Having deployed on operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Group Captain Colman is only too aware of the significance of the Force’s achievements over the past 10 years. He said:
“Throughout the past 10 years, the Merlin has assisted in providing the backbone of support to operations and played a hugely significant part in ensuring mission success. The Force’s contribution to life saving, force protection, deliberate operations and enabling the dispersal of people and equipment has been simply outstanding. The professionalism, dedication and sheer bravery of the Merlin Force’s aircrew and engineers has been of the very highest order and this marks the end of a truly exceptional decade-long contribution to operations in support of Defence’s commitments.”