Lts Tim Dunning and John Phillips enjoy the moment after a hunt for a US nuclear boat off Sicily in NATO’s biggest anti-submarine exercise in the Mediterranean, Dynamic Manta, a hunt made considerably easier for the Wildcat crew from HMS Duncan as the USS John Warner, a Virginia-class hunter-killer, was on the surface of the Ionian Sea.
In fact all, the boats partaking in the war game were on the surface as the many assets mustered for a photoshoot before the business of cat-and-mouse began in earnest.
Some 5,000 military personnel – a good 300 of them British – from across the alliance are taking part in the fortnight-long test of air, sea and underwater power in the waters off Sicily.
Duncan and the NATO task group she leads provide the bulk of the surface ships. As an air defence destroyer Duncan has limited submarine hunting abilities, but her helicopter can attack a boat with Sting Ray torpedoes.
Far abler to hunt down a submarine are the two Merlins from 814 and 829 Naval Air Squadrons which are based at Sigonella, near Catania, for the duration of Dynamic Manta.
Before heading out on missions of up to five hours in duration, Merlin aircrewman PO Elton ‘Dobbo’ Dobson and his colleagues hold a ‘sonobuoy party’ – preparing the hi-tech listening devices which are dropped down tubes in the back of the Merlin.
In the water, they either passively listen for the sound of a submarine moving, or they actively hunt them, sending sound through the ocean in the hope of it bouncing back after striking something metallic – known informally as ‘pinging’.
For the more precise location of a submarine, Merlin lowers or ‘dips’ a sonar from beneath the fuselage, hovers, and its observer and aircrewman listen passively or actively hunt the boat.
And a sonobuoy party? Not as glamorous as it sounds: merely sorting out the right buoys and preparing them for the coming mission.
There are six boats for the Merlins and Wildcat to track down – conventional submarines such as the Spanish Mistral as well as nuclear powered ones like the John Warner.
The exercise runs until March 16.