Interview with Merlin helicopter pilot

Commander ‘Grassy’ Knowles gives us the low-down on flying and fighting in this 14-ton Anglo-Italian masterpiece of helicopter design. ORDER THE HUSH-KIT BOOK OF WARPLANES HERE

Describe the Merlin in three words? Flexible, Fast, Maritime. 

What’s the best thing about it? Its flexibility, for a naval aircraft which all suffer what I call the tyranny of dispersion – you can’t have lots of specialist aircraft because you haven’t the space and you’re a long way from home when the job requirements change – I’ve launched for a 20-minute job and landed 6 hours later having done 15 different tasks before now, it excels at Anti Submarine Warfare but is also great for Search And Rescue and troop/cargo movement. 

And the worst? Reliability, due to the size of the fleet, not enough aircraft means very expensive to support which results in low availability. A political decision to support Westlands (not a wrong choice) that means the Royal Navy pays a very large premium cost of ownership.

“As for Merlin vs Seahawk, just ask any US Submariner who they’d rather face…. it isn’t Merlin!”
 
How do you rate it in the following:
A. Sensors 
Excellent ASW Radar and Sonar, ESM seriously needs modernising. Lack of Navigation Sensors in the Mk 2, (no Radio Nav aids not even an ILS) make it sometimes ‘interesting’ getting in and out of international civilian airfields.  Mk 4 well equipped in that regard.
 
B. Noise in cabin.
Pretty noisy cockpit due to numbers of fans to keep all the displays cool. However still quieter than most comparable aircraft and really great for lack of vibration due to the ACSR (Active Control of Structural Response). 

C. Human Machine Interface  
Pretty great from a ‘flying’ perspective. I was very picky when I was the Mk 2 Project Pilot and critical of it but compared with other aircraft it’s pretty good. Interactions with the Mission System from the cockpit could be better. 

D. Climb rate
It’s pretty well powered in any temperate conditions and even at Maximum All Up Mass had a good climb rate. Somewhat limited when ‘hot and high’ but then it wasn’t designed to be there. But performed far better than the Lynx escorts in Basra for performance and surprised the Blackhawks when we powered past them during joint Ops.



 
E. Ease of take-off and landing
Pretty good handling qualities although it’s mismatched in roll versus pitch control power so if you watch any Merlin takeoff they’ll wobble left and right whilst the pilots brain re-learns the compensation required. Landing is always limited by its high nose-up attitude in the hover vs tail rotor risk of impact so it’s tricky to stop and land quickly and dynamically. You’ve got to get rid of forward speed/momentum early.
 
F. Hover characteristics
 Great Automatic Flight Control System hover and reliably gets you in and out of the hover with nil external references. Can take a while to learn to be truly precise with it manually as the trim isn’t quite as fast as a Wildcat so many pilots end up trim releasing a lot as a control strategy, which takes away a lot of stabilisation. 

G. Ease of loading
Bit of a pain, cargo door is very high, and in normal ASW etc role normally has a number of seats and ASW kit in the back, but that said, still manages to show flexibility in moving stuff and people around the fleet. Mk 4 obviously better suited but the ramp is quite steep and can get slippy from experience in Basra etc. 

H. As a transport 
That flexibility thing again, you can actually take all the mission kit out of a Mk 2 and turn it into a large transport aircraft, I remember thinking ‘we’ll never do that again’ after demonstrating it during acceptance. Couple of months, later Operation Gritrock, the UK support to the Ebola crisis and cue 3 Mk2 Merlin, kit stripped out, providing excellent support as a transport aircraft. You can also fast-rope from all marks of Merlin with a LOT of troops and it’s very quick, very smooth and surprisingly (until the last few seconds) quiet from the ground. It became a firm favourite of the troops in theatre due to that. Being able to arrive quickly and in a fit state to fight is after all the primary aim. 

5. Do you feel an emotional attachment to Merlin?
 God yes! One of the first ab-initios on the Mk1, a rarity as an exchange pilot on Mk3 during Op TELIC, the Mk2 Project Pilot as a Test Pilot and the aircrafts Capability Manager in HQ in several guises, CO of 820 NAS taking Merlin back into proper Carrier deployments and bringing CrowsNest into Service, I’ve lived and breathed Merlin my entire career. I’ve poured sweat, blood and tears into its development and life. 

Biggest technical challenge to the programme? For the Mk 2 programme I would say the new Mission System upgrade, For Mk4 integrating a folding tail into a ramped helo and for CrowsNest, overcoming the sales pitch of a ‘known mission system going into a known aircraft will be low risk’ it isn’t, it’s an engineering compromise and always was going to be. 

Enough power? I heard stories of air con being removed from Merlin’s in the Middle East
 Yes, tricky hot and high as it’s optimised for Atlantic ASW or European Plains Trooping by design. Normally runs out of Turbine  Temperature first (TIT) before Torque. Wasn’t much point having the Air Con packs in Middle East anyway as the doors were always open for self defence weapons. 

What should I have asked you? And what’s the answer? Where next for Merlin? I was intimately involved in the recent move to extend the Merlin’s life to 2040; apart from the CrowsNest AEW role, supposedly that is going to a UAV by 2030 but we’ll see, I’ve yet to see the replacement capability have a serious programme. I think the Royal Navy should invest in a midlife upgrade/obsolescence package to modernise the Merlin systems. At the moment there are lots of bespoke processors, chassis and card. This could make cost of ownership cheaper, and help develop the technology and de-risking of the eventual replacement, especially if the intent is for it to be uncrewed. An example of this: You should be able to reduce crew by introducing more automation too if you want to eventually bring uncrewed aircraft into the mix.
 





ORDER THE HUSH-KIT BOOK OF WARPLANES HERE

What was your most memorable mission in Iraq?
 27th March 2008. During the Battle of Basra, I was day tasker Captain, we had an intense day operating as a 2-ship with the IRT aircraft (captained by Flt Lt Kev Harris, an awesome bloke, humble and great pilot who had been my Captain during my first Basrah deployment and taught me loads) he rightfully earned a DFC for his actions during those days, all I can say is that as the other aircraft Captain he earned it. We had awoken somewhat surprisingly to find ourselves supporting a major offensive by the Iraqi Army which hadn’t been well planned or coordinated it felt and we were on the back foot.  Those few days were seriously hectic, flying into and out of a lot more dynamic fighting than we had been used to recently and with the Iraqi troops taking a lot of injuries as were some of the U.K. embedded mentors.  That day I remember we flew multiple 2 aircraft trips into Basrah Palace, Old State Building and I think at one point 5 mile market, flying as a 2 ship was always more fraught, you’re a richer target for indirect fires (mortars etc) and it just made for a frantic, dynamically planning and replanning and reacting kind of a time. Little glimpses jump out from those few days, the moment an American embed grabbed my crewman and yelled something like “Don’t leave us here man, don’t forget about us.” Like a scene from a Vietnam film, only to have said crewman reply in his B-road Irish accent “We’re only popping back to the base for more water fella, we’ll be back in half an hour!”  Those funny little moments of levity that keep you sane in high pressure times are peppered across my deployments in Iraq.10. Which piece of equipment did you wish it had during your time in Iraq Mini-Gun. Never really had much faith in the GPMGs as self-defence weapons. 

What’s its closest US counterpart and how do you believe they compare? Any opinions you’ve heard on Merlins from US helo crew or soldiers? Seahawk for Mk 2, Blackhawk for Mk3/4. US were always surprised how fast we were and that we could/would fly in conditions they wouldn’t/couldn’t. I once flew Gen Petraeus during the Battle of Basra and he was ‘perplexed’ that he was riding in a Brit helo when the Blackhawks wouldn’t fly. As for Merlin vs Seahawk, just ask any US Submariner who they’d rather face…. it isn’t Merlin!
Is it good having 3 engines? Nope. It’s a good idea to only lose 1/3rd of your power during an engine failure, especially when you spend so much time in the hover, but 2 good engines where you had better One Engine Inoperative performance would be better; less weight (not just extra engine but very complex Gearbox to incorporate 3 inputs), plus massively decreased maintenance and support costs. 
If you could change one thing about it what would it be? Be more reliable, and to be fair that’s not about the aircraft but the support solution. There’s not a great deal of Merlins across the world so the spare and support is very expensive per aircraft/per flying hour as a result. If you’re going to support a sovereign industry then you need to accept it might be more expensive to do so and fund accordingly.

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