At the start of the year Puma Mk2 aircraft from RAF Benson took part in a yearly arctic exercise run by the Royal Marines to train UK military personnel how to survive, and fight, in the arctic winter.
Exercise CLOCKWORK took place at the Royal Norwegian Air Force base at Bardufoss located 69° North. Two Puma Mk2 aircraft left RAF Benson in the first week of January on a three day flight to arrive in the Arctic Circle. There, they were met by a C17 aircraft from RAF Brize Norton delivering the additional Puma Force personnel required to operate and maintain them. Those that had previously completed the Cold Weather Survival Course promptly got to work preparing the aircraft for what would be a busy month to achieve a Cold Weather Environmental Qualification for the aircrew. The Force’s Qualified Helicopter Instructors initially re-qualified their own EQs ready to cascade the training.
For those who had not visited before, it was straight into the Cold Weather Survival Course, a pre requisite for any UK personnel operating in arctic conditions.
The Cold Weather Survival Course, run by the Royal Marines, involves four nights out in the mountains surrounding Bardufoss with temperatures down to minus 30 degrees! After two days of briefings and kit preparation 60 people from across JHC walked out into the wilderness. They were led by the charismatic Mountain Leader equipped with a healthy mix of Jack speak, obscene language and a 1990’s attitude. The participants were equipped with a little more in the form of a massive Bergen which would get heavier as the days went on.
Despite the obvious, the course provided an excellent introduction into digging snow and then spent a considerable amount of time consolidating this vital skill. There were even additional opportunities to practise digging snow and later on shovelling snow. But this did mean we slept soundly in our well constructed snow holes or ‘quincys’. Northern Lights refuelled people’s morale and provided a realisation of what an opportunity it was to see the magnificent solar phenomenon amongst the beautiful arctic scenery. After a few ‘yomps’, stretcher races and a tactical phase putting the skills they had learnt to the test the course was complete apart from one last hurdle… the ice breaking drills!
The ice breaking drill simulates a fall through the ice with Bergen, skis and poles and requires you to pull yourself out – unaided. The training staff duly cut a hole in the ice of the nearby lake, provided us with some fresh clothes and sat back to watch. Everyone took the plunge into the icy lake, extricated themselves and delivered a sharp salute to the CO before recieving a tot of rum, in good Navy fashion, to warm us up.
With the survival course complete, the focus turned to the flying task. The engineering brethren and aircrews had to wear studded shoes to avoid slipping over on the icy dispersal on their walk to the aircraft. There were no suitable hangars at Bardufoss so contact gloves had to be worn at all times when working on the helicopters to avoid cold injuries. Heaters warmed the gearbox before a start and shut down for a leak check. Only then could we launch. Once airborne it was a real privilege to fly amongst the serene, isolated and mountainous terrain in the few hours of daylight that were available – it was like a permanent dusk.
Gradually the crews worked their way through the syllabus. Starting below the tree line with plenty of references to make an approach to before progressing to above the tree line where the snow provides very few references for the crew and makes it extremely difficult to gauge depth and undulations in the snow drifts. However, in these trying conditions the Puma Mk2 came into her own. Her auto pilot provides a stable platform to make an approach to hover with limited references. The blowing snow creates ‘white-out’ conditions but the accurate holds stabilise the aircraft in a hover allowing the pilot to simply lower the collective lever to land on. After mastering these skills by both day and night, crews were put through their paces with formation landings, Under Slung Loads in blowing snow and flying in the mountains.
The detachment managed to achieve 24 full Environmental Qualifications during the four weeks of the Exercise. This was only possible down to the excellent engineering support and impressive