End Of An Era And A Look To The Future

The 9th July 2015 marked a significant moment for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. In its centenary year, 28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron handed the final Merlin helicopters over to 845 Naval Air Squadron, as  they formed the Commando Helicopter Force’s second Merlin Squadron.

It marked one of the final stages in the transition of the Merlin helicopter from the RAF’s Support Helicopter Force to the Commando Helicopter Force.

The formal ceremony took place at Royal Air Force Benson and was attended by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent, Honorary Air Marshal of RAF Benson, as the Royal Reviewing Officer. The 2nd Sea Lord Rear Admiral K E Blount OBE and Air-Officer Commanding No 2 Group, Air Vice-Marshal G Parker OBE, were also in attendance to represent both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on parade.

Following the parade, a reception was held in the hangar and in line with naval tradition a “Splice the Main Brace” was toasted to mark the birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte, which consisted of a large tot of Pusser’s Rum. After a 28 Squadron Spitfire display over the airfield, the 28 (AC) Squadron flag was lowered for the final time. The day then concluded with an All Ranks party held in a marquee at the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess at RAF Benson.

Wg Cdr Ian Diggle, Officer Commanding 28(AC) Squadron said: “Today does not mark the end of an era for 28(AC) Squadron; it is merely the metaphorical turning of the page to begin a new chapter. Having spent so much of its remarkable history as an expeditionary force, serving in Asia and the Far East, it was only natural that the introduction of the Merlin Mk3 helicopter in 2001 should herald a continuation of, rather than a change in the way  the Squadron worked. Following the success of Op OCULUS in the Balkans, it came as no surprise when, in March 2005, 28 (AC) Squadron redeployed to the middle east where it would remain for the next eight and a half years, supporting British and Allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

However this is not the end for 28 (AC) Squadron. Although the Squadron’s time as a frontline unit has come to an end, their future is assured as the newly formed combined Puma and Chinook Operational Conversion Unit. Equipped with Chinook Mk4/6 and Puma Mk2 helicopters, 28 Squadron will continue to deliver aviation by training all future Royal Air Force Support Helicopter crews.

His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent said: “I am honoured to be the Reviewing Officer for the handover of 28 Squadron Standard and the Standing Up of 845 Naval Air Squadron at RAF Benson. In my capacity as  Honorary Air Marshal of RAF Benson I have had the pleasure of seeing 28 (AC) Squadron excel both in the UK and on operations over the last 15 years; with the reformation of 28 Squadron as the joint Puma and Chinook Operational Conversion Unit I look forward to celebrating its continued success and centenary next year. I am also thrilled that the Merlin will continue to serve Her Majesty’s Armed Forces with 845 Naval Air Squadron under Commander Punch and I wish them the best as they conquer the challenges of operating at sea. This impeccable parade provides a highly impressive and fitting occasion for such a momentous day at RAF Benson.”

Since 2011 aircrew and engineers from the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force have been integrated into the Merlin Force at RAF Benson; working alongside their Royal Air Force counterparts to absorb over a decade of experience of operating and maintaining the technologically advanced aircraft. On 30 September 2014 the responsibility of Delivery Duty Holder for the Merlin Mk3 and Mk3A fleets was handed over to the Commando Helicopter Force and 845’s sister squadron 846 NAS was stood up.

May 2015 saw 845 NAS stand down as a Sea King Squadron, handing over the duty of seeing the venerable aircraft out of service to 848 NAS, and moved to RAF Benson to begin its new role as a Commando Merlin Squadron. Following an upgrade as part of the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme, the “marinisation” of the Merlin will enhance what is already a proven platform, to ensure the Commando Helicopter Force continues to contribute successfully to the Royal Navy’s credible military force.

The Squadron will remain at RAF Benson until summer 2016 when they and the remaining Merlin aircraft will return to the home of the Commando Helicopter Force, Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, reuniting all CHF Squadrons for the first time in over three years.

Although transition has marked the end of the RAF Merlin Force, it has also enabled the future of the Commando Helicopter Force. And with 28 Squadron tasked with training the future of the RAF Support Helicopter force, the future is bright for RAF Benson.

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