Against the glitzy, unmistakeable backdrop of the Las Vegas skyline, the Royal Marines new flying steed banks in company with a US Air Force Pavehawk.
The wings of the green berets, the Commando Helicopter Force, took their Merlins to Nellis Air Force Base – on the edge of the world-famous city of pleasure – for two weeks of intensive training, perfecting rescuing casualties from the field of battle.
The Royal Marines’ helicopter force is in the middle of switching from the trusty Sea King – which has served the commandos well for more than four decades, including extensive action in the Falklands, Gulf and Afghanistan – to the battlefield Merlin: big, green, more powerful, more capacity, loading ramp for troops to walk up.
The new helicopter requires new ways of thinking and working – which is why 845 Naval Air Squadron left their base at Yeovilton behind to head to the desert to train with 3 Commando Brigade whose marines are currently blasting their way through the live-fire exercise area at Twentynine Palms.
The detachment to the US also allowed a fortnight in Vegas working with 66th (Jolly Greens) Rescue Squadron – the world leaders in what the military call Joint Personnel Recovery: saving wounded troops.
The US military formed a dedicated unit to do just that based on their experiences in Korea at the beginning of the 1950s.
Six decades down the line, and with a specially-modified Blackhawk helicopter, the HH60 Pavehawk, the Jolly Greens have become experts in not just extracting injured personnel – but doing so under enemy fire.
The combined US-Royal Navy training – Exercise United Action – reached its climax with two Merlins and two Pavehawks carrying out a joint rescue.
‘The introduction of new tactics gave a fresh way of viewing recovering personnel – and the opportunity to work side-by-side with our Allies was invaluable,’ said pilot Flt Lt Tim Thorogood.
‘With Nellis next to Las Vegas, flying the helicopters over the famous bright lights of the ‘Vegas Strip’ is something I’ll never forget!’ added Flt Lt Thorogood.
After the inaugural exercise, the commando fliers are hoping to build on the training in 2016 with the goal of becoming the UK Armed Forces experts in battlefield casualty recovery.
‘This was an unrivalled training opportunity,’ said Cdr Matt Punch, 845 NAS’ Commanding Officer.
‘Half a century of experience, training and active service has lead them to be world leaders in joint personnel recovery, so it was clear that we were being mentored by the subject matter experts.’
‘66th Rescue Squadron couldn’t have been more welcoming, committing a huge amount of time and resource to developing our understanding and tactical appreciation for personnel recovery. It was some of the best aviation training I have experienced in my career.’