Carrier air wing work-up

Heard of the UK’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and the F-35B Lightning II fighter, but what about a UK carrier air wing? Ian Harding has, and visited Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose to see it in action


With a new era of carrier aviation on the horizon, Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall recently launched its first exercise to ensure the station is carrier ready. Held between November 13 and 22, 2017, Exercise Kernow Flag (Kernow is Cornish for Cornwall) was a ten-day exercise aimed at preparing it further for operations on board HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), the Royal Navy’s brand-new flagship aircraft carrier. Kernow Flag was staged while HMS Queen Elizabeth was underway during two months of sea trials.

Home to carrier aviation

Employing over 3,000 personnel, Culdrose has a crucial role to play training aircrew, flight deck operators and other carrier support staff, as well as providing aircraft to support future carrier operations. Commanding Officer of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose Captain Dan Stembridge, a naval aviator with extensive experience of carrier operations on the Sea Harrier FA2 and F/A-18E Super Hornets from US Navy super carriers, explained: “RNAS Culdrose is essential to the delivery of the UK’s carrier strike capability. For us to be able to deliver our part in this, we need to ensure our personnel have the right skills and mindsets required for aircraft carrier operations. Culdrose will provide the vast majority of the aircrew for the carrier task group that will protect the carrier alongside Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 and Type 26 frigates, submarines and the new RFA class tankers. During the ten-day exercise, we flew over 600 hours around the clock, in five different aircraft types operating with ships and submarines in order to prove our carrier abilities. Throughout Kernow Flag, the air station operated as if it was on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, and tested all aspects, from engineering to the supply chain through to the front end of flying.”

Carrier culture

Discussing Kernow Flag with AIR International, Culdrose Operations Officer and Exercise Control (EXCON) Battle Force Commander Lieutenant Commander Craig Whitson- Fay said the event took a year to plan and represented a major undertaking involving aircrew, engineers, flight deck operators, fire crews, logistics, chefs, administration staff and contractors: “The exercise enabled us to relearn some of the carrier lessons we have lost. It brought us closer together as a naval air station as we practised those skills operating with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. With HMS Queen Elizabeth operating close to Culdrose, our job as the carrier air wing was to work up the aircrew, engineers and all the support functions to ensure we can launch and recover aircraft on time. This will ensure the ship is fit for purpose and can deliver whatever effect is required on time. Kernow Flag was less about the operational aspects of the aircraft and how specific tactics are performed – our squadrons understand their specialist roles well – and more about changing operational cultures and behaviours.”

Following the loss of the Harrier GR9s and therefore a fixed-wing carrier capability in 2010, Fleet Air Arm rotary-wing carrier operations have been very different. There are certain space limitations and operational constraints that apply aboard a carrier when fixed and rotary assets are combined that do not apply when operating from a land base or a single-spot ship. In these situations, the rotary component has more operational freedom and latitude.

Merlin HM2s prepare to touch down on HMS Seahawk’s flight deck attended by Royal Navy flight deck handlers.
All photos Ian Harding unless st
An F-35 Ground Training Aid (GTA) is towed into position on deck by Royal Navy flight deck handlers. Built of fibre-glass, GTAs are dubbed faux fighters and enable handlers to get used to the size and weight of a real F-35B; each GTA is fitted with water tanks to simulate fuel and weapons loads between 16 and 24 tonnes. Four are assigned to the School of Flight Deck Operations.

Lt Cdr Whitson-Fay explained: “Operations to and from the flight deck are constrained and tightly controlled to the minute, so that fixed and rotary-wing assets can operate in the same space. We have a whole generation of good naval aviators who are not used to operating within such tight constraints. Kernow Flag was about us relearning the lessons of old, operating within tight constraints, starting with the basic steps of departing and arriving back on time, to the minute.

“A key element of the exercise was to create complexity and extra confusion that the ship’s personnel will encounter as they aim to meet the carrier and their squadron’s flight programmes, plus the objectives of the specific operation they are supporting. All three elements must come together for the ship to operate and function, but it’s not just about aviation; maintenance and engineering must also work effectively. Logistics, supplies and administration must be tested and personnel need to eat.

“Without these elements working together there is no aviation capability. We therefore set out our daily plan, worked out where the conflicts of interest were and aligned them so that aircraft could leave and arrive back on time.”

New generation

Lt Nick Allen, a Merlin pilot assigned to 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and one of the new generation of aircrew to benefit from the exercise, was one of the first pilots to land a Merlin on HMS Queen Elizabeth during recent sea and deck trials. He previously flew from HMS Ocean (L12) and explained the importance of Kernow Flag from an operational perspective: “The important part of this exercise was testing and experiencing the time-critical elements first hand. It all starts with the daily flight programme. If fixed-wing movements are scheduled [Hawk T1As], rotary assets cannot move from the deck at the same time. Our operating time on deck is therefore limited, because of their [fixed-wing] long take-off and departure profile. In general, we would be able to operate from the deck approximately ten minutes either side of fixed-wing aircraft.

“We therefore apply the procedures used during land-based or single-spot ship operations. In terms of our [rotary-wing] planning and briefing, for an average sortie we brief 75 minutes prior to launch. With 30 minutes to go, we walk to the aircraft. For a more complicated sortie the brief may be done further in advance, and that brief can itself take some hours to prepare.

“During Kernow Flag, we received a strict time slot for departure, and if we couldn’t meet that time for any reason, communication guidelines were stringently applied to maintain deck safety. For future carrier operations, we would talk directly with the flight coordinator in the operations room who would then decide if we should stand down or if our flight will be rescheduled. This process was simulated at Culdrose using a separate communications channel within our own squadron. Our designated operations personnel then called it in with exercise control, who then took the decision whether to depart or stand down.”


Every front-line squadron based at Culdrose participated in Kernow Flag: 814, 820, 824 and 829 NAS flying the Merlin HM2, the Sea King ASaC7-equipped 849 NAS, Hawk T1As from 736 NAS and Avenger T1s from 750 NAS. Aircrew from all four Merlin squadrons were pooled, as they will be during carrier operations. Ships assigned to Flag Officer Sea Training operating in training areas of the south coast, a Walrus-class submarine from the Royal Netherlands Navy, and Royal Navy fast patrol boats were also involved. Some anti-submarine warfare (ASW) serials involved Dutch NH90 NFH helicopters that were deployed to Culdrose to conduct deep-water ASW training.


A sense of realism was at the heart of the three exercise objectives: achieve 350 flying hours during the period; achieve 60% aircraft serviceability across engineering; and only operate using a similar deployed stores pack used on current deployments. This tested both engineering capability and the supply chain to ensure they fit and function correctly, so personnel could adjust and react to life aboard a carrier and second-guess scenarios.

It was essential for a live exercise to take place so the results and lessons learned could be closely scrutinised to help determine the correct number of Merlin helicopters required given the number assigned to overseas operations, developmental testing and in planned maintenance. Nine Merlin HM2s were assigned to Kernow Flag; the Fleet Air Arm has a fleet of 30.

Command and control

Nerve centre for Kernow Flag was EXCON, with the primary role of replicating planning and decision-making functions undertaken by a Battle Watch team in conjunction with its air operations centre. The Battle Watch team had responsibility for delivering a daily flying programme within the evolving exercise scenario. EXCON also ensured key personnel were able to continually assess and appraise the Task Group’s position relative to the set objectives, and to identify and learn lessons as the exercise progressed.

“During the ten-day exercise, we flew over 600 hours around the clock, in five different aircraft types operating with ships and submarines in order to prove our carrier abilities.” Commanding Officer of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Captain Dan Stembridge

A typical flight deck scene of the future with Merlin HM2s and an F-35, in this case a Ground Training Aid.
Two F-35B Ground Training Aids, a Merlin HM2 and two Sea Harrier FA2s on the dummy deck, dubbed HMS Seahawk, during Exercise Kernow Flag.
Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose photo section/Royal Navy

Forward planning on a rolling 72-hour basis, EXCON was also responsible for booking aircraft, helicopters, airspace and ensuring communications and frequencies were maintained to enable the ship’s company to complete its tasks.

Lt Cdr Whitson-Fay spoke about the preparedness to deal with emergencies that can arise aboard a ship: “Aircraft become unserviceable and a solution must be found. The key is ensuring everyone gets the right information at the right time to take action.

Whatever the situation, we task the most appropriate assets to meet the threat, taking account of the variables at the time. If it’s a submarine threat, our Merlin’s will be tasked; if there is an increased air threat, our Sea King ASaC7s [Crowsnest-equipped Merlin HM2s in the future] supported by our jets [F-35B Lightning IIs in the future] will do that; if it’s a surface threat, then tasking may comprise a combination of types.”

EXCON’s planning for Kernow Flag included a variety of potential mission eventualities with interaction from air, surface and subsurface assets, so the future Task Group could anticipate repelling an aggressive force to stabilise a region.

While ASW and anti-surface warfare missions involving Merlin and Sea Kings featured prominently, other important types of missions were practised. These were air defence, humanitarian assistance, search and rescue using patrol boats, vertical replenishment, replenishment at sea, underslung load (USL) lifts and manoeuvres to deter jet ski attacks.

Action stations

On day one, multiple aircraft departed Culdrose at 11:00hrs to simulate a mass embarkation on to an aircraft carrier at sea;six Merlin HM2s, two Sea King ASaC7s, four Hawk T1As and one Avenger T1 performed a formation fly past over the aircraft carrier HMS Seahawk (RNAS Culdrose), before elements of the rotary-wing contingent landed on a dummy flight deck.

Awaiting them were Royal Navy flight deck handlers, all initially trained at Culdrose and presently training on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. The dummy deck used for the exercise is a permanent facility used by the Royal Navy School of Flight Deck Operations based at Culdrose. Each year, the school trains over 2000 personnel in flight deck operations in a realistic confined environment using both ground training aircraft, which include F-35 replica aircraft, and live Sea Harrier FA2s.

Mission intensity grew as the simulated war developed. Week one saw basic flying and deck activity indicative of a carrier air wing making preparations for combat. Programme and tasking during the first week included basic simulated deck operations, fast jet air defence serials, winching, USL lifts and combined antisubmarine exercise (CASEX) serials. Operational tempo further increased over the weekend when Merlin and Sea King ASaC7s conducted SAR and winching exercises with four P2000 patrol boats and large-scale inert CASEX missions. Two Merlin HM2s operating in unison as a dip-gang, a reference to the type’s primary ASW role, hunting for an inert submarine using a Lockheed Mk39 EMATT (Expendable Mobile ASW Training Target). This is a programmable unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) used to simulate the acoustic and magnetic signatures of a submarine for ASW training. An EMATT UUV can be programmed on predetermined nautical headings, to change route, speed up, slow down and emit different sounds just as a live submarine would to disguise its presence. The latest version of the Mk39 has a maximum speed of 8kts (14km/h) and can operate to depths of 600ft (183m) with an endurance of up to ten hours, depending on the speed programmed.

Week two featured a SWARMEX, a swarm exercise, involving multiple jet skis and small fast boats attacking a ship underway in Falmouth Bay countered by Merlin helicopters armed with M3M machine guns to repel the swarm, which in a real scenario could involve jet skis and fast boats each packed with high explosives.

Another large-scale CASEX involved Dutch NH90s and Merlin HM2s working cooperatively to hunt and strike the Dutch Walrus-class submarine.

Acid test

Kernow Flag was a demanding exercise designed to test man, machine and processes. The ten-day event represented the next stage of the ongoing process of carrier development by Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose. Primarily about developing operational culture and behaviour, its acid test will be the lessons learned by both the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy and a clearer view of the future.

A Merlin HM2 assigned to 820 Naval Air Squadron with HMS Queen Elizabeth titles.