Sqn Ldr Paula Willmot, MCO RAF Cottesmore, reports on Joint Force Harrier’s biggest deployment since Afghanistan.
After a long period of distinguished service on operations in Afghanistan, Joint Force Harrier has, for the last twelve months, been working hard to regenerate all the important skills that necessarily took a back seat to the primary task of Operation ‘Herrick’. One such skill, much practiced by 800 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), is the demanding realm of embarked operations. The summer of 2010 saw 1(F) Squadron take its turn by embarking on HMS Ark Royal for Exercise ‘Auriga’ and two months of carrier flying and simulated fighting off the eastern seaboard of the United States.
As with any deployment, work starts in earnest months before any actual carrier flying can take place. For 1(F) Squadron this included refining its abilities in the VSTOL regime unique to the Harrier; taking off from the practice ski jump at RAF Wittering and landing from the hover back at RAF Cottesmore. A noisy environment for all those working at both bases, made occasionally quieter by the interruption of one Icelandic volcano!
With all relevant pre-carrier qualifications for deck landings and engineering work complete, on June 2 the advanced party departed RAF Brize Norton for NAS Mayport in Florida to embark HMS Ark Royal and make the necessary preparations for the arrival of six Harrier GR9As, due to depart and make the long journey across the Atlantic via the Azores and the extreme north-eastern USA.
Life on board for the advanced party – comprising the squadron’s engineers, operations staff and a few pilots – started apace with many briefs, a ‘crash on deck’ exercise and a refresher on the basics of first aid and fire fighting. The idea behind these briefs is to prepare all those who aren’t in the ship’s regular company for the ‘whole ship’ mentality; everyone having a job to do and a duty to be an effective part of a fighting ship.
With the advanced party thoroughly integrated, it was time for the jets to arrive. On June 4 all six Harriers arrived alongside the ship led by Wing Commander Dave Haines, OC 1(F) Squadron. The jets made an impressive sight as each drew alongside the carrier for their deck landings – on arrival the Wing Commander Haines commented that “He was looking forward to an exciting and challenging deployment that would see 1(F) Squadron regenerate the plethora of day carrier skills”. For one pilot it was his first time: Captain Andy ‘Howie’ Tenenbaum is the exchange officer from the US Air Force. An experienced A-10 pilot with many operational tours in Afghanistan under his belt, Andy said “It was a unique experience, definitely something I feel privileged to have done and also something I won’t forget!”
With aircraft on board, the busy process of initial qualification of the squadron’s pilots in carrier operations began in earnest. In all, six pilots had never flown from the carrier before. No two-seater flights for them – it’s right in at the deep end in the war-going aircraft with a tough schedule of ramp take-offs and deck landings. Flt Lt Mark Long, the newest pilot on the squadron, had mixed feelings about his first trip from the carrier: “Having launched from a land-based ramp numerous times, lining up on the deck for the first time felt familiar; however, there was the daunting prospect that once I launch from the ship I have to get the jet back on again!”
[img src=1101 align=left]In all, 48 sorties were flown in the first six days aboard the ship, a feat only achievable thanks to the incredibly hard work of 1(F) Squadron’s engineers managing to ensure all of the six aircraft stayed available throughout the period. Warrant Officer Chris Godwin said “After the challenge of deployed ops last year, followed by our recent detachment on Exercise ‘Red Flag’, this has proven to be an altogether different challenge for the ground crew. It is a very demanding environment to work in, but all of the lads have worked hard and can be proud of the achieved aircraft availability under such arduous operating conditions.”
After the initial qualification period, the squadron was involved in the dropping of freefall bombs and live 1,000lb bombs mixed with air-to-air fighting with Canadian CF-188 Hornet fighters. For many aircrew this was the first drop of a live bomb, and as such it is a great testament to the ship’s weapon suppliers, the squadron armourers and the deck crew that all bombs were dropped successfully.
But how is it on board ship? For the vast majority of 1(F) Squadron this is the first experience of life at sea. The biggest challenge has been changing the normal daily routine to fit in with the ship’s equally busy activities including live firing of the ship’s defences, practice man-overboard drills and damage control exercises. Equally though, it is very satisfying for the members of the Squadron who would ordinarily not see flying directly to be involved with deck operations. They work in close proximity to aircraft launching and recovering, an area fraught with danger demanding high standards of professionalism. This professionalism is reflected in the rest of the ship’s company who are very keen to make sure that everyone from the air group feels a true part of the ship. SAC Howe was heard to say “The whole CVS environment has turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. Once you get used to the way the Navy do things you can just get along with enjoying such a novel experience.”
As HMS Ark Royal prepared for the month of July, 1(F) looked forward to further exercises alongside the Americans, including the dropping of 1,000lb laser guided and freefall bombs, training in urban close air support of troops and the additional possibility of being involved in beach head assaults with 3 Commando brigade.