key.aero takes a brief look at 16 Air Assault Brigade at Wattisham Airfield, home to the Army Air Corps’ fleet of Apache helicopters. For more on the Apache and its operations, see the April issue of AIR International magazine.
Friday, September 3, 1999, saw the birth of a new Brigade within the British Army at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk. Nearly 10,000 soldiers came together to form 16 Air Assault Brigade (AAB), the most powerful air manoeuvre formation in the Army's history. It is intended to be able to punch deep and fast into enemy territory, equipped with the Apache AH1 ‘Longbow’ anti-tank attack helicopter, bringing a new level of sophistication to the Army Air Corps early in the new century.
16 AAB is the largest operational Brigade in the Army and an amalgamation of many previous units, principally the merging of 24 Airmobile and 5 Airborne Brigades. The main units comprising 16 AAB are numbers 3, 4 and 9 Regiments, Army Air Corps, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Parachute Regiment. Integral to the Brigade are combat support and combat service support units, all of which have an airborne (parachute trained) element, consisting of an Air Assault Infantry Battalion, an Artillery Regiment equipped with light guns, an Air Defence Battery equipped with high velocity missiles, a close support Engineer Regiment, a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Maintenance Battalion, a Logistic Regiment, a close support Medical Regiment, a Signal Squadron and a Royal Military Police company. A liaison officer from the RAF is also permanently assigned.
The Apache shares Wattisham airspace with RAF Sea King helicopters from 22 Squadron.Created as part of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, 16 AAB was born through a need to bring together the capabilities of the three services of the British Armed Forces under Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), which oversees the operation and tasking of all Army Air Corps, Royal Navy Commando and RAF Support helicopters. JHC maintains and values the individual ethos of the three services, but focuses their joint capabilities.
Colchester in Essex is the location for the Brigade Headquarters, with many of the associated units being based in the town's garrison or at nearby Wattisham Airfield. The aviation capability is provided by 3 and 4 Regiments at Wattisham with the Apache AH1 and 9 Regiment, based at Dishforth Airfield in Yorkshire, with the Lynx AH9. The Apache carries up to sixteen laser and fire-and-forget radio frequency guided long-range anti-tank Hellfire missiles and up to seventy-six CRV7 70mm multi-purpose rockets, being effective against light armour and soft skinned vehicles. The Apache can operate in all weathers, day or night, and detect, classify and prioritise up to 256 potential targets in a matter of seconds. A total of forty-eight Apaches equip the six front-line squadrons within the two Regiments, with another nineteen undertaking training and trials at Middle Wallop Airfield in Hampshire. Number 7 (Air Assault) Battalion, Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME) provides specialist second line maintenance support for the Apache, serving those based at Wattisham and Middle Wallop.
Scout AH1 from the Army's Historic Flight.3 Aviation Regiment was formed on October 24, 1969 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Elliott at Netheravon, near Salisbury in Wiltshire and consisted of 653, 664, 665 and 666 Aviation Squadrons, equipped with Sioux and Scout helicopters based at Netheravon, Perham Down, Farnborough, Colchester and Plymouth. The Regiment provided direct support for not only 3 Division, but also 5 Airportable Brigade, 24 Airmobile Brigade, and 16 Parachute Brigade.
On October 1, 1973 the Aviation Corps changed its identity to the Army Air Corps and the old Sioux helicopters were replaced with the more modern Gazelle. In 1977 there were a number of changes: on August 1, 1977, 665 Squadron was made independent of the Regiment, and both 653 and 664 squadrons were disbanded. Regimental Headquarters moved to Salamanca Barracks in Soest, Western Germany, to support 3 Armoured Division. On December 1, 1977, the Regiment took over 654 and 660 Squadrons, which were re-numbered 653 and 663 Squadrons on April 1, 1978. In 1982 662 Squadron joined the Regiment.
3 Regiment moved to Wattisham, Suffolk, as part of 24 Airmobile Brigade in 1995. Since then it has deployed on operations to Croatia, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. It received its first Apache AH1s in 2005 with 662 Squadron the first to convert, completing the process in May 2007. 653 Squadron was the last to covert in April 2009.
Like 3 Regiment, it was formed in October 1969 and comprised 654, 660, 661 and 662 Aviation Squadrons. In 1972, 662 moved to the 2nd Division Aviation Regiment and 660 came under command of the 4th Division Aviation Regiment. In November 1977 the Regimental Headquarters moved to Detmold in Western Germany and comprised 661 (A Squadron) at Detmold and 658 (B Squadron) at nearby Minden.
In 1978 the squadrons were renumbered as 654 Squadron at Detmold and 664 Squadron at Minden. In January 1983 664 Squadron became independent, remaining at Minden as the Corps Support Squadron and 659 and 669 Squadrons joined 4 Regiment following the disbandment of 9 Regiment.
Along with 3 Regiment, 4 Regiment moved to Wattisham in 1995. In 2006, 659 and 669 Squadrons both moved to 9 Regiment at Dishforth in North Yorkshire with both 656 and 664 Squadrons coming the other way, as they had already begun work-up with the Apache.
Deployment to Operation ‘Herrick’ began in April 2008, with 664 Squadron being the first to deploy on a four-month tour. In January 2009 it was 654 Squadron’s turn with 656 Squadron the last in April 2009.
Notes from Operation ‘Herrick’
An Apache AH1 demonstrates its M230 Chain Gun.The Officer Commanding 656 Squadron said: “Operations in Afghanistan are very demanding for the pilots. Flying missions are frequent, at all times of the day and night, and the sorties are varied. We might be tasked to reconnoiter a bridge to see if it’s still in position after a flood, then mid-flight diverted to support grounds troops in a contact with the enemy, or tasked to escort a casualty evacuation. We have to be very flexible, and mental and physical endurance is a pre-requisite.
“The high temperatures in Helmand and frequent aircraft sorties are also very demanding for the ground crews, who re-arm and re-fuel the aircraft; the aircraft technicians, who maintain and service the Apaches; and the signallers in the operations room, who co-ordinate and control the missions. We all work to the beat of the twenty-four hour, seven-days-a-week operational tempo. It's non-stop; it’s a team effort.”
A trooper said: ''This is my first operational tour. I'm a signaller in the operations room. Once aircraft have been allocated to the mission, I radio through to the pilots and ground crew to call them onto the tasking. It all happens very quickly. In the ops room it becomes very hectic as we're getting the aircraft into the air. We want to get to the troops on the ground as quick as possible.”
Wattisham's 70th anniversary event in July 2009 saw the largest formation of Apaches yet seen in the UK.Territorial Army personnel from 677 Squadron, 6 Regiment, Army Air Corps (Volunteers) based in Bury St Edmunds were attached to 656 Squadron for a recent operational deployment in Helmand Province. One said ''This is my first operational tour and it's been an awesome experience, really second to none. Out here on operations in Helmand Province we're putting into practice, on an hourly basis, all the training we've done in the UK.
''I'm an Arming Landing Point Commander. I take command of the aircraft on the ground after landing and prior to take-off. My responsibility is to ensure that while the aircraft is on the ground it is safe and the correct munitions and fuel is loaded onto the aircraft. My team and I make sure that it's ready for action, fully armed, fully fuelled and ready to go again.
“Out here in Helmand Province the tempo of operations is faster than on other operations. We work long hours and often have to deal with the unexpected. Fast-ball taskings, where we have to service, re-arm and re-fuel aircraft in a short space of time, happen frequently. My team and I work 24/7 out here.”
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