A FLEET of helicopters has begun a new life at RAF Benson after 10 years of operations.
The 26 choppers in the Merlin Force have been permanently deployed in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.
The Merlin’s main role was to support land forces by moving troops between locations and delivering supplies. In June, the Ministry of Defence announced that the fleet would be returning to Britain and be stationed at RAF Benson, where the helicopters will be maintained.
The aircraft will be transferred to the Commando Helicopter Force of the Royal Navy as replacement for the retiring Sea King and will be used in contingency operations and disaster relief.
The Royal Air Force will replace the fleet with the Puma Force. Despite commitments to the war in Afgahnistan, RAF crews and engineers have been preparing the new CHF crews and maintenance personnel on the Mk3 and Mk3A Merlins, which cost £40 million and are technologically advanced.
The first fully qualified crews and aircraft are due to depart RAF Benson by the end of next year.
Flight Lieutenant Jeff Fitzpatrick, a pilot who completed four tours of Afgahnistan, said the Merlin was ideal for carrying troops — up to 24 at once— and equipment in a war zone.
He said: “The Merlin has a very modern cockpit. The navigation and communication equipment makes life easier for the pilots and allows them to concentrate on operations they are carrying out.
“It’s fast and smooth and very safe in the case of an accident.”
Flight Lieutenant Bill Kenrick, who was retiring as a pilot after 34 years, was greeted by a wall of honour made up of RAF personnel after his final flight on Friday. The 52-year-old has been flying the Merlin since it was introduced and said: “It’s a lovely aircraft.
“It’s very smooth and capable. It has long legs and with a full load of fuel it can travel for four hours at 0.9 miles to the gallon.”
Group captain Nigel Colman, commander of RAF Benson, said the Merlin would be missed but the Puma was
“The new engines are far more efficient and powerful,” he added.