Royal Navy, March 09, 2019 - Commando Wildcat helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron have been proving their warfighting capability during sorties in the unforgiving valleys and mountains of the Arctic Circle.
The Yeovilton-based Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) squadron were involved in their largest helicopter assault force since the conflict in Afghanistan during the annual winter outing to Norway, Exercise Clockwork.
Based out of Royal Norwegian Air Station Bardufoss, 847 NAS worked alongside NATO allies, Norway and the United States, in a six-strong aircraft force to take troops into the heart of combat exercises and provide vital air support.
Flights to the Setermoen Ranges also meant the Wildcat crews could put the aircraft’s mounted .50 calibre M3M 12.7mm machine gun through its paces in the extreme cold – vital testing to ensure the weapon itself and the crews can handle freezing temperatures around -20°c.
“At the ranges we’ve been operating the M3M weapons system, qualifying our weapons operators in their annual competency,” said Petty Officer Aircrewman Paul Iche of 847 Naval Air Squadron, the Crew Served Weapons Instructor for the Wildcat Exercise Clockwork detachment.
“With the M3M fitted, the door of the aircraft has to be open. It brings in quite a wind chill and that then effects the operators’ ability to maintain the position behind the weapons system.
“We’ve been operating in temperatures as low as -20°c, so we have to monitor the operators for cold weather injuries.
“Due to the cold, certain parts of the weapons system expand and contract with the difference in temperature, but that has so far not effected the running of the system.”
Overall, the Wildcats of 847 NAS, on just their second foray to Bardufoss, have shown their versatility on a very fruitful mission to northern Norway.
They have forged and strengthened bonds with fellow NATO forces, the Army’s Apache attack helicopter – on its first venture to Exercise Clockwork – and, of course, with their familiar friends the Royal Marines.
During helicopter assault missions, the Wildcat provided an escort to four Bell 412s of 339 Squadron of the Royal Norwegian Air Force.
The Wildcats used their capability as a battlefield reconnaissance helicopter to clear landing sites, making way for the Norwegians’ twin-engine utility warbird to deliver troops to the frontline or extract them.
While supporting the Norwegian aircraft, the Wildcats provided crucial air support, communicating closely with embedded units from the United States Marine Corps, to guarantee ground units had sufficient cover.
Alongside the Royal Marines, the Wildcats trained with 30 Commando XI’s Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron, while work alongside the Apache of 656 Squadron also proved highly fruitful.
Together the two helicopters are becoming a deadly duo, with Wildcat finding targets using its reconnaissance abilities and Apache destroying it.
Before taking the fight into the cold, the Wildcats' crews first undertook qualifications to be able to operate in the Arctic freeze.
That was made up of ten sorties, including mountain flying, snow landings by day, night and using night vision goggles.
On top of that, the Wildcats flew in tactical formation and trained in underslung loads.
For some of the aircrew, this was their first time operating overseas and the difficult conditions of Norway proved challenging.
Lieutenant Mark Hanson, said: “Conducting snow landings at night using night vision goggles in a formation pair after a day of heavy snow proved to be challenging and a steep learning curve but, at the same time, was very rewarding.”
Completion of this phase was a significant achievement and meant the squadron could now operate in the Arctic effectively.