June 22, 2021 – The most powerful battlefield helicopter in Britain’s arsenal has completed two weeks’ intensive training on the nation’s newest aircraft carrier.
Three Apache gunships joined HMS Prince of Wales to allow the Army Air Corps’ fliers get their sea legs back – and give the Portsmouth-based warship a taste of the helicopter’s striking power.
The fearsome-looking aircraft joined the carrier before she departed her home base on her latest series of trials and training in the English and Bristol Channels.
The Army Air Corps maintains a specialist maritime Apache squadron, 656, with modified gunships equipped with floatation devices should one of the multi-million-pound helicopters having to ditch (thankfully they haven’t).
Otherwise it remains the same fearsome tank-busting battlewagon operated over land, equipped with a chain gun capable of spitting out a hail of 30mm lead at 600 rounds a minute, CRV rockets to knock out buildings and Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
The emphasis of the squadron’s embarkation on the carrier was ensuring air and ground crew were used to operating at sea – and to train Prince of Wales’ air/air engineering departments in handling, moving, maintaining and launching/recovering the Apache as part of the carrier’s broader air group.
During the fortnight-long spell on the Portsmouth-based leviathan, 656 Squadron shared the flight deck with RAF Chinooks, Royal Navy Merlins and, briefly, the first F-35 Lightning jets to land/take-off from HMS Prince of Wales.
The Army Air Corps fliers landed and took off 161 times, qualified one new pilot for maritime operations by day/night, while eight more regained or maintained their currency.
Instructing the aircrews was veteran Apache pilot Major Tony Thompson with 19 years in the cockpit. This was his seventh embarkation in a ship in five years and he says the Queen Elizabeth class is a challenge for pilots – despite a flight deck large enough to accommodate three football pitches.
“HMS Prince of Wales is a much larger ship to land on – but she’s also much darker,” Major Thompson added.
“It’s quite intimidating – it’s not until you are right next to the ship they you can make out enough detail on her to land.”
Landings are made all the more challenging by the positioning of the helicopter’s two crew behind each other – rather than side-by-side in most cockpits. It means each crew member’s field of vision and reference points for safely landing are different.
And if it’s tough for the crew in the cockpit, the Apache poses challenges for the Royal Navy aircraft handlers who guide it on to/off the deck and move the nine-tonne warbird around.
‘The Apache presents a unique set of challenges for us to operate on the flight deck, but despite its menacing look the Apache actually has a smaller downwash than Merlin and Wildcat,” explained Leading Airman (Aircraft Handler) James Batley.
“For me, as a flight deck director, the Apache’s ability to be almost invisible in the dark makes marshalling and ground movement particularly difficult at night.”
Prince of Wales’ aviation training was conducted simultaneously with her ship’s company put through the mangle by experienced RN instructors who threw every conceivable mishap, accident, breakdown and emergency at the sailors: widespread fires, air attacks, refueling with RFA Tiderace, crashes on deck, gunnery serials.
In addition, the carrier provided an impressive backdrop to the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. The unmistakable outline of the ship could be seen in Carbis Bay as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden chatted on the sands – and on numerous international news bulletins during the international conference.