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Royal Navy helicopters have joined the national struggle against the coronavirus, helping millions of people in England’s West Country.
As part of the Royal Navy’s support to the National Health Service (NHS) throughout the U.K. during the pandemic, Merlin helicopters from Culdrose will act as flying ambulances and transporters, flying supplies and personnel.
The helicopters – typically used for submarine-hunting – will provide round-the-clock assistance to the NHS and South West Ambulance Services, serving a population of more than 4,500,000 people across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Bristol, Somerset, the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly.
Three Merlin Mk2 helicopters and their crews from 820 Naval Air Squadron have been set aside for the task, aided not just by their own engineers and technicians, but the entire support network at the Helston airbase: medics, air traffic controllers, safety and logistic experts.
The submarine-hunting equipment which normally fills the helicopters’ cabins has been stripped out so the Merlins can carry several stretchers, passengers and stores quickly, smoothly and efficiently over long distances.
“This is very different from our ordinary role, but jobs like this are in our DNA. We are helping out the nation and the National Health Service during these testing times – it’s a real moment for everyone to pull together,” said Commander Chris ‘Grassy’ Knowles, 820’s Commanding Officer.
“It demands a real team effort for us here at Culdrose in terms of getting the aircraft and the crews ready, getting all the logistical support in place – providing air traffic controllers, meteorological information, so that we can operate 24 hours a day.”
Knowles said efforts had been made to protect crews – “and the whole Culdrose family” from the risk of infection, following medical guidelines for isolating patients and decontaminating the helicopters, equipment and uniforms. “We’ve had a run through and it was very successful.”
His air and ground crew will be working 12-hour shifts to be able to respond to the pandemic, carrying NHS paramedics with patients when required.
“This is why I joined the Royal Navy – helping the country in times of need,” said pilot Lt. Nick Jackson-Spence.
Leading air engineering technician Danielle King added: “This is going to be a very busy but rewarding period for us. We have to keep these aircraft capable of flying around the clock, ensuring we can always provide whatever assistance the NHS needs. Our number one priority is to keep the aircraft and its crew safe, and that means we need to be meticulous in our aircraft maintenance as any mistakes could be costly. It’s hard work, but a job I really enjoy doing.”
It’s the second time in five years the squadron has been called upon to help during a medical emergency. Its helicopters supported the U.K.’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa over the winter of 2014-15.
At the same time as supporting civilian authorities, Culdrose’s Merlin Force will continue their usual duties; protecting U.K. waters and safeguarding the strategic nuclear deterrent.
“We are very aware that we have an important role to play in supporting the nation at this difficult time; we will make every effort to provide this contribution and make a difference in our region,” said Commander James Hall, in charge of the Maritime Merlin Force.
“We train our people to do this type of task all of the time; it is something that they all have the skills to deliver at sea and on land.”