HMS Dragon lends air support

Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins
Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins
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She might not be anywhere near the size of an aircraft carrier, but HMS Dragon is providing a flight deck for all sizes on her Gulf mission.

The Royal Navy’s six Portsmouth-based Type 45 destroyers have been built with a large flight deck which can accommodate many different types of aircraft, and a hangar which can house two helicopters.

As if to prove the point, in the space of a week she has taken on board SH-60 helicopters from the US Navy and US Marine Corps and all three types of Royal Navy helicopter: the Lynx, the Merlin, and the Sea King.

As reported in The News, HMS Dragon is operating in the region to help keep the shipping lanes safe, and her crew have been working hard to make sure they are ready for anything.

Earlier this year they became the first Type 45 to operate with two helicopters on board.

HMS Dragon left the city in March with one of the aircraft from 815 Naval Air Squadron.

But she also carried a spare air and ground crew, ready to look after HMS Monmouth’s helicopter when the destroyer relieved the frigate to take over Gulf patrol duties.

Since then, the crew has gone back to working on only the one helicopter.

But working on 12-hour watches means they can keep the aircraft ready to fly at short notice around the clock.

They regularly toil in temperatures well above 40 degrees to keep up with the high flying tempo.

Lieutenant Commander Paul ‘Ellers’ Ellerton, 44, is the flight commander on board.

He says: ‘It is a massive increase in capability, and it’s not something that has been tried before.

‘It has been hard. We work hard in our 12 hours, but then we do get 12 hours off.

‘We are flying more than 60 hours a month, and the previous unit that was out here before us was only doing 27.’

For Ellers, working in the heat of the Gulf is the extreme opposite of his favourite job so far — working in the Antarctic with HMS Endurance.

The 44-year-old started off working on Sea Kings, before doing a search and rescue tour in the early 90s.

He then transferred to Lynx helicopters and has flown on several deployments in the Gulf.

Having two Lynx helicopters on board allowed one aircraft to carry out the day job of surface searches and providing support to the ship’s board and search operations, while the second helicopter involved itself with the Royal Marines sniper team and fast roping training, passenger transfers, and the important task of picking up mail to bolster the morale of the ship’s company.

But having two helicopters on board means twice the maintenance work.

To keep the aircraft flying safely, there is a lengthy list of checks and preparations which must be carried out to ensure the ship’s captain can call upon the support of the helicopters.

Chief Petty Officer Derek Ashurst, 46, is the Senior Maintenance Rating on board HMS Dragon.

He said: ‘It has been really busy but it has gone really well and we have been able to make the Lynx available to command 24 hours a day.

‘It’s something different that I have never done in my career before and this should be my last flight.

‘I have pretty much always worked on Lynx helicopters but I’m coming to the end, so this should be it for me.

‘I have loved being at sea, and with my job it’s like being my own boss.’

Working in the Gulf presents its own challenges, particularly when it comes to maintaining the aircraft in a dusty environment.

‘The dust is a maintenance nightmare,’ adds CPO Ashurst, who joined the Royal Navy in 1985 as an artificer apprentice.

‘It gets everywhere.’

The helicopters aren’t the only things to suffer from the heat, as the maintenance engineers regularly have to work in the hangar, which unsurprisingly does not benefit from air conditioning.

But another asset brought in with the Type 45s is a ‘ready room’ contained in the hangar, which is gloriously cool and offers the crew a respite from the hostile Gulf heat.

CPO Ashurst adds: ‘The Type 45 is so much different from other ships I have been on and it really makes a difference.

‘The lads have got a room to get ready in which is cool, and that helps a lot.’

Air Engineering Technician James Craig, 22, from Waterlooville, is a junior engineer in the department.

His responsibility is to maintain the helicopters — referred to as ‘cabs’ — and do flight checks before and after each mission.

AET Craig says: ‘Operating two cabs is something that hasn’t been done before, and HMS Dragon has proved it can be.

‘They are good bits of kit and they have ironed out a lot of problems.

‘We’ve all been working really hard, getting the cabs in and out and making sure everything is being done quickly but safely.’

Seven months in the Gulf is the 22-year-old’s first deployment

‘It has been a bit of a culture shock to come from living in a squadron to coming out here and working in the Gulf,’ adds AET Craig.

‘But it has beaten all my expectations and more.

‘It is hard work, but I was expecting it to be hard, and being able to go through makes you feel good.

‘Seven months feels like a long time, and it’s going to feel weird getting out of routines and being able to do what I want when we get home.’