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Merlin Helicopter

The Merlin Mk3, Mk3a, iMk3 and Mk4 are medium-lift helicopters operated by the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF)

The Merlin is designed and manufactured by AgustaWestland, who designate it as the AW101. The Royal Navy operates a fleet of Merlin Mk2 helicopters in the maritime force protection and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role. The Commando Helicopter Force, however, use their Merlins as an amphibious troop transport and utility helicopter.

Merlin Mk3
An RAF Merlin Mk3 flies through the Jordanian desert during a training exercise.
Image by SAC Tommy Axford © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2012 used under open government licence

CHF Merlin Design Features

Unlike the Mk1 and Mk2 ASW variants, the Merlins flown by the Commando Helicopter Force feature a rear ramp for the rapid loading and off-loading of troops. The Merlin can accommodate up to 24 fully-laden troops.

The Merlin is powered by 3 Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca RTM322 engines that power a main rotor assembly that consists of 5 BERP (British Experimental Rotor Programme) IV blades.

The Merlin features a night vision goggle (NVG) compatible 'glass cockpit' which displays navigation, aircraft systems, sensors and other data on 6 digital screens.

Flight control systems include Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) and Active Control of Structural Response (ACSR) anti-vibration system. Navigation systems include laser-gyro, inertial-navigation platform, doppler and GPS. Some Merlins have an infrared sensor in a chin-mounted turret.

Merlin Mk3 using hoist
A Merlin Mk3 assigned to 846 NAS, Commando Helicopter Force recovers personnel via its rescue hoist. The Merlin also features a roping beam over the starboard cabin door that supports a single MK4 rope.
Image by LPhot Dan Rosenbaum © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2016 used under open government licence

The Merlins have an advanced defensive aids suite (DAS) that consists of a laser warning system (LWS), missile approach warning system (MAWS), radar warning receiver (RWR), Nemesis AN/AAQ-24 DIRCM (Directional Infrared Counter Measures) jammer and ALE-47 Airborne Countermeasures Dispenser System (flares and chaff).

Maximum internal payload for the Merlin is 5,433kg. The helicopter can carry up to 4536kg as an underslung load. Max range is 927km. External tanks bump the max range up to 1,300km. Top speed is 167kts and max altitude is 15,000ft.

Merlin Mk3 with underslung load
A Merlin Mk3 carries a 105mm howitzer as an underslung load. CHF Merlins are used to airlift troops, stores, vehicles and equipment for 3 Commando Brigade, such as the L118 Light Gun used by 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery,
Image by Sergeant Mitch Moore © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2013 used under open government licence

The Merlin is crewed by 2 pilots and 2 aircrewmen. The pilot's seating is armoured against small arms fire. General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs) can be mounted at various stations around the aircraft, including at the rear ramp and side window apertures.

Merlin Mk3a GPMG
A Petty Officer Air Crewman (POACMN) with 845 Naval Air Squadron fires a GPMG mounted in the cabin doorway of a Merlin Mk3a
Image by PO(Phot) Si Ethell © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2017 used under open government licence

Commando Helicopter Force Merlins

The Merlin has been brought in to replace the CHF's fleet of Sea King Mk4s that are slated for decommission by March 2016. The RAF CHF began transferring its Merlin Mk3/Mk3A helicopters to the CHF in 2012. Official transfer of command of the UK Merlin Mk3.Mk3A fleet occured in September 2014.

Merlin Mk3a
A Merlin M3A assigned to 845 NAS. The Mk3A Merlins were bought from the Danish militaryfor use by the RAF, before eventually being transferred to the CHF. The Danish Merlins were configured for combat search and rescue (CSAR) operations. Modifications included kevlar armour protection for the flight crew (later added to other RAF Merlins), fast-roping points at the rear ramp and cargo door and a rail for static parachute jumps out the rear ramp. The distinctive bulge on the helicopter's nose housed a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera.
Image by LPhot Dan Rosenbaum © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2018 used under open government licence

A Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP) is underway to upgrade the Mk3/3A helos to Mk4/4A 'Commando Merlin' standard. This navalises the aircraft, enhancing its amphibious capability. Improvements include automated fold of the main rotor blades and tail boom. Avionics upgrades include a fully digital glass cockpit of the standard found in the Merlin Mk2 and Wildcat AH1, and provision for a tactical computer. There is also a provision for fitting a FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE III electrooptical system to the Mk4/4A. The Commando Merlin features a DAS Controller that integrates with existing DAS elements to rapidly identify and respond to threats.

The MLSP delivered the first Merlin Mk4 in September 2017 and will eventually produce 25 Mk4/4A Commando Merlins for the CHF.

Commando Merlin Mk4 helicopter
A Commando Merlin Mk4 assigned to 845 NAS. The Mk4 features a maritime-grey colour scheme.
Image by LPhot Dan Rosenbaum © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2018 used under open government licence

To fill the gap between the Sea Kings retiring and the new Merlins coming online, 7 Merlins have been converted to iMk3 - 'i' for interim - standard, to allow them to embark on ships. The iMk3 features manually folding main rotor blades, deck lashing points, fast-rope fixtures, upgraded undercarriage and an I-band transponder. The interim Merlins came into service just as 848 NAS disbanded and the last CHF Sea Kings were decommissioned. At that point, 846 NAS took on the Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) commitment from 848 NAS.

Merlin iMk3 helicopter
A Merlin iMk3 pictured during helocast training.
Image by PO(Phot) Si Ethell © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2017 used under open government licence

Merlin iMk3 with FLIR
A pair of Merlin iMk3 - these helicopters have been flitted with a FLIR sensor turret on the chin.
Image by PO(Phot) Si Ethell © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2017 used under open government licence

In August 2018, Merlin Mk4s began embarking on HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier. Along with Wildcat AH1 helicopters from 847 NAS, they will form the Specialist Commando Aviation task force. The CHF Merlins aboard the Queen Elizabeth will have a number of roles, including amphibious assault, joint personnel recovery, and the movement of stores and personnel.

Merlin Mk4 helicopters
A pair of Merlin Mk4 helicopters preparing to depart RNAS Yeovilton for the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, August 20, 2018.
Image by LPhot Dan Rosenbaum © UK MOD / Crown Copyright 2018 used under open government licence

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