YOU can’t beat an awesome display of helicopter hardware on the flight deck of a Royal Navy warship.
That’s right, it’s a Jungly Sea King in trademark green and white livery which has just touched down aboard HMS Illustrious in the North Sea.
Oh, and a couple of Army Air Corps Apaches.
Old and new whirlybirds trained side-by-side on Lusty to fine tune the Portsmouth-based warship’s ability to deploy around the world as the nation’s on-call helicopter assault ship.
Three Apaches from 656 Squadron, based at Wattisham in Suffolk, flew aboard Lusty for a week’s training to refresh their knowledge of operating the gunship at sea. They were joined on the flat-top by three Commando Helicopter Force Sea Kings of 848 Naval Air Squadron.
The potency of the Apache was demonstrated last year courtesy of a succession of ‘surgical strikes’ against pro-government targets in Libya, when the helicopters were launched from the deck of HMS Ocean.
With the Mighty O undergoing maintenance following her exertions last year, Illustrious has stepped in to fill the role; she’s at a few days’ notice to sail anywhere in the world should the British Government require her 22,000 tonnes of steel and thunder.
The Apaches will depart before Lusty heads north to lead the UK input to Cold Response, winter war games in northern Norway; she’ll serve as the command ship for Maj Gen Ed Davis, Commandant General Royal Marines, who with his Commander Amphibious Forces staff will be directing the movements of Allied warships during the NATO exercise.
Before the 650-plus sailors and airmen aboard Illustrious can entertain thoughts of fjords and the Northern Lights, however, there’s the small matter of a ‘30th birthday party’.
Workers at the Swan Hunter yard in Wallsend toiled for more than three years to build the 22,000-tonne warship (they also built Lusty’s younger sister Ark Royal).
Three decades on, Swan Hunter sadly no longer builds warships, but Tynesiders’ passion for the Royal Navy remains undiminished – the area is regarded as the second best place in the world for one of Her Majesty’s Ships to visit (first is New York…).
Sea Cadets and students from a host of local schools and colleges will be given guided tours of the carrier and will learn more about the varied career opportunities on board – as well as in the wider Royal Navy.
Capt Martin Connell, the carrier’s commanding officer, said: “I know my ship’s company are very much looking forward to visiting Tyneside, where we are always assured of a warm welcome.
“The links we enjoy with the area stretch far back to the very yards where Swan Hunter workers first laid her hull. Although the ship will not be open to the general public on this occasion, I look forward to welcoming a number of guests on board including Sea Cadet and school groups.
“Illustrious is a fine ship – she can do anything from humanitarian work to war fighting. Being her commanding officer is the best job in the Royal Navy.”