Portsmouth team praised for averting catastropic damage to navy helicopters on Ebola mission

A Merlin helicopter dropping off another load of food for the remote villages off Sierra Leone
A Merlin helicopter dropping off another load of food for the remote villages off Sierra Leone
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BOFFINS whose advice helped save the Royal Navy a multi-million pound helicopter repair bill following the Ebola relief mission in Sierra Leone have been rewarded.

The team of specialist engineers, technicians and scientists from 1710 Naval Air Squadron in Portsmouth Naval Base have been named the MoD’s first ‘innovators of the year’.

It comes after they prevented the use of a corrosive disinfectant – used to kill the Ebola virus – which could have caused ‘catastrophic damage’ to three hi-tech helicopters.

The pandemic struck in 2014 and sparked a major international aid effort to combat the outbreak of the disease.

As part of this, three helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron, with support ship RFA Argus, were dispatched on a six-month mission.

Although neither the ship nor helicopters were in any direct contact with sufferers of the disease, the fleet of Merlins still needed to be disinfected daily.

But the eagle-eyed team from Portsmouth realised the recommended disinfectants used to kill the virus had a corrosive effect on the helicopters – with a series of tests confirming their fears.

‘When we tested the three materials that were recommended for aircraft disinfection, every one of them was corrosive and one of the products would have had catastrophic consequences if it had been used,’ explained team leader Andy Dutch.

‘What we found was that not only would the recommended disinfectants have eaten our aircraft they were very poor at killing Ebola virus as well and could have put personnel at significant risk of infection.’

Instead, the 1710 experts suggested a strong alkaline cleaner, already used to keep military aircraft clean safely – but never used against diseases.

It was tested on the extremely dangerous ‘live’ Ebola virus – with successful results, saving the navy millions in future repair bills.

‘If it had been proved that the other materials were better at killing Ebola than the one we proposed, then the damaging disinfectant would have been used and the MoD would have had to deal with the costly effects on the aircraft further down the line,’ Andy said.

A citation, read by defence procurement minister Harriet Baldwin said the team’s had contributed ‘to the global understanding of biological security’.

Commanding officer Commander Chris Ling said he was ‘extremely proud of the squadron’s achievement, and the very clear professionalism and initiative they demonstrate in all that they do’.