HMS Prince of Wales: Army pilots from 656 Squadron fly Apache helicopters on aircraft carrier

CREWS operating army gunships have completed two weeks of intensive training on HMS Prince of Wales

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 4:30 pm

Three Apache battlefield helicopters joined the aircraft carrier so the Army Air Corps’ fliers could get get used to life at sea.

They were aboard when she left Portsmouth for trials and training in the English and Bristol Channels.

Crews from the army maintain a specialist maritime Apache squadron, designated 656, with flotation devices should they have to ditch.

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A soldier from 656 Squadron. Picture: LPhot Mark Johnson
A soldier from 656 Squadron. Picture: LPhot Mark Johnson

Armed with a chain gun capable of firing 30mm rounds at 600 per minute, the helicopters also have rockets and anti-tank missiles.

656 Squadron shared the flight deck with RAF Chinooks, Royal Navy Merlins and, briefly, the first F-35 Lightning jets to fly from the carrier.

Army pilots landed and took off 161 times, qualified one new pilot for maritime operations by day and night, and either others trained.

Pilot Major Tony Thompson, who has 19 years in the cockpit, said the Queen Elizabeth class is a challenge.

An Apache helicopter on HMS Prince of Wales' flight deck. LPhot Mark Johnson

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He said: ‘HMS Prince of Wales is a much larger ship to land on – but she’s also much darker.

‘It’s quite intimidating – it’s not until you are right next to the ship they you can make out enough detail on her to land.’

Navy handlers guide the warbird before take off and after landing.

‘The Apache presents a unique set of challenges for us to operate on the flight deck, but despite its menacing look the Apache actually has a smaller downwash than Merlin and Wildcat.’ explained Leading Airman (Aircraft Handler) James Batley.

‘For me, as a flight deck director, the Apache’s ability to be almost invisible in the dark makes marshalling and ground movement particularly difficult at night.’

The flights took place at the same time as RN instructors were busy throwing every conceivable mishap, accident, breakdown and emergency at the sailors.

They had to handle mock widespread fires, air attacks, refuelling with RFA Tiderace, crashes on deck, and gunnery serials.

It comes after the £3.2bn carrier provided a backdrop to the G7 summit in Cornwall – seen from Carbis Bay as prime minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden spoke together.