HMS Trent has been pushing aircrews to the limit as she helps write the rulebook for helicopter operations around the globe.
The patrol ship has served as a testbed for two weeks of intensive trials with a Wildcat helicopter in the Mediterranean, testing the aircraft in different weather and sea conditions, with different weights and loads by day and night to determine the limits at which aviators can safely operate.
The ship is one of five second-generation River-class patrol vessels, deployed from Mexico to Singapore at the forefront of operations underlining the UK’s global ambitions, with Trent assigned to the Mediterranean and West Africa.
It’s not the first time helicopters have worked with – or landed on – one of the quintet.
But this was by far the most extensive test with the information collected allowing not just Wildcats to operate from the River-class vessels, but also help larger Merlin helicopters and similar NATO/allied aircraft.
That expands the ship’s potential role and missions, hugely benefiting operations as varied as search and rescue, board and search/maritime security, delivering humanitarian aid and launching commando raids.
A specially-modified Navy Wildcat helicopter – which supports the missions of Royal Navy destroyers and frigates around the globe – was dispatched with an elite team of pilots and QinetiQ scientists. Their goal? To determine what aviators call Ship Helicopter Operating Limits – the boundaries for safe flying.
Four test pilots from the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron and two QinetiQ flight test engineers – all from MoD Boscombe Down – provided the air crew, supported by a couple of test engineers, two QinetiQ flight physicists and an analyst were required for the flying and science on board Trent, while 815 Naval Air Squadron – the front-line Wildcat unit – provided more than 20 engineers and technicians to maintain the hi-tech aircraft.
Trent made use of both the western Mediterranean and Atlantic as she sought the wind and sea conditions the aviators needed.
In all, the helicopter landed – and took off from – Trent’s flight deck more than 200 times in as many different circumstances and conditions as possible, day and night (the latter with and without night vision goggles).
A series of sensors on the Wildcat and the patrol ship’s superstructure recorded crucial details – many of them not normally available to the air or ship’s crew – with a good two terabytes of data (that’s enough space for more than a quarter of a million songs for your MP3 player).
To define the limits at which a helicopter can operate, there’s a specific scale to assess the best possible combinations of an aircraft’s weight, the motion of the ship and relative wind.
“One of the certainties of this type of flight test is that in flying to find what is appropriate for front-line use, test crews will inevitably find what isn’t,” explained Commander Chris ‘Grassy’ Knowles, Commanding Officer of Boscombe Down based Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron.
Team Trent enjoyed the novelty of extended operations with a helicopter – getting used to guiding the Wildcat safely on and off the deck, refueling it, communicating with the crew, loading and unloading kit.
“As my first time on board a warship, I have really enjoyed it,” said Air Engineering Technician Conor Sinclair from 1700 Naval Air Squadron, which provides units and ships around the Navy with extra personnel for specific missions.
“It’s a completely different experience and way of operating from normal squadron life. It has been really full, but I’ve made sure I’ve been topping up the tan when I can.”
Engineering Technician Kieran Mcternan acted as the ‘badger’: fueling and supporting the aircraft whilst it is on the flight deck, which also means responding to an emergency.
“This has been a whole new learning experience for me, which is always exciting after four years in the Royal Navy,” he said. “I have really enjoyed the challenge and the responsibility that has come with the flying trials.”
While the team at Boscombe Down analyze the data and write the operating manual, Commander Tom Knott, HMS Trent’s Commanding Officer, is in no doubt the trials will benefit the day-to-day operations of the Overseas Patrol Squadron.
“This extra string to the patrol vessel’s bow will support her wide range of operations – humanitarian aid and disaster relief, interdiction operations, counter piracy and counter narcotics, boarding operations and so much more,” he added.