The U.K. Royal Air Force has been celebrating a decade of almost continuous operations with its EH101 – now AW101 Merlin – helicopters.
The first 22 Merlin Mk3s entered service in 2001 and two years later began operations in Bosnia supporting peacekeeping operations in the region. This was then quickly followed by operations in Iraq and more recently in Afghanistan where the type worked alongside the Chinook providing transport around Helmand Province for British and coalition troops until the type was withdrawn from the theatre earlier this year as part of the wider drawdown of British forces in country. With the last Merlin returning to the U.K. in July, the entire RAF Merlin force is back home for the first time in 10 years and with good reason.
Over the next three years, all the remaining RAF Merlins – including the six aircraft purchased in 2008 from the Royal Danish Air Force – will be absorbed into the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) where they will form the backbone of the U.K. helicopter amphibious support force and replace the Jungly Sea Kings currently in use. Royal Navy personnel now make up a third of the Merlin Force, and that will steadily increase through into 2015 and 16 when the helicopters slowly move from their current home at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset.
Training to convert new RAF pilots to the aircraft came to an end at the beginning of the year, and Navy pilots and crewmembers will dominate proceedings until the Navy takes responsibility for training in around 2016. RAF Benson will remain busy however, as the based Puma Mk2 force grows to its full complement of 24 helicopters. They may also be joined by a handful of Boeing CH-47 Chinooks once the RAF’s fleet grows to 60 in the coming years. The main Chinook operating base at Odiham does not currently have the facilities to cater for 60 Chinooks, so commanders are exploring alternative options which include basing some at Benson or enlarging the Odiham facilities.
With the U.K. having the largest EH/AW101, fleet it has helped the manufacturer AgustaWestland mature the design, and now the company believes it has a second wind of opportunity for sales of the three-engined helicopter.
A civil certification program is planned for some time in 2014 and the company believes there is a real chance the aircraft could finally achieve success in the oil and gas market – a market for which it was envisaged back in the 1980s. But this time, the company believes the type could find a niche supporting platforms 300 nautical miles from shore.
It is also gathering attention as a VIP transport with configurations which also include a heli-borne shower. A VIP configured AW101 – an aircraft intended for the Indian Air Force – was displayed at this week’s Helitech in London’s Docklands, and VIP aircraft have already been sold for use by the president of Turkmenistan, whilst others will soon head for Saudi Arabia and Algeria. The aircraft is also competing for a significant order from Norway against Eurocopter’s EC725 as the country’s next generation search and rescue helicopter.