The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), on behalf of the Royal Navy, has received its final AW101 Mk4/4a Merlin helicopter. This aircraft was part of the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme, which entailed the upgrade of 25 AW101 Merlin Mk3/3a aircraft.
The aircraft modifications include new cockpit avionics, ship optimization including a folding main rotor head and folding tail to enable the helicopters use from ships for littoral manoeuvre.
Recognising the need to replace the legacy Sea King Mk 4 Commando Helicopter, the Merlin aircraft were transferred to the Royal Navy in 2014 and the airframes commenced an upgrade programme to become the Merlin Mk 4.
Within their new role with the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), the aircraft are now required to operate from amphibious ships and provide a sea to shore assault capability, often in support of troops from the Royal Marines.
The new designs have equipped the aircraft with a folding main rotor head and a new tail section to provide a folding tail ability – both of which are essential to allow the aircraft to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and Albion Class Landing Ships.
Key to providing a battle winning edge was the integration of a new tactical processor that provides tailored information to the aircrew to better understand the tactical environment and enemy threats that they find on the battlefield. Drawing from the technologies developed for the AW159 Wildcat aircraft, the system is fully integrated in the cockpit and can be updated in real time by the aircrew.
The upgrade also introduced a new Glass Panel cockpit display system with five separate screens allowing multi-functional displays that can show moving maps with tactical symbology overlays, images from the Electro Optical Camera, or a read out from the aircraft engine and electrical systems. In addition, the aircraft was fitted with a new fast roping beam that allows the rapid deployment of Special Forces (SF) from the main cabin door – therefore this opens up a new SF support role for the aircraft.
Colonel Mark Johnson, Royal Marines, Commanding Officer of CHF, said: 'The Merlin Mark 4 – colloquially known as the Commando Merlin – is proving to be a game-changing capability upgrade for the CHF. It has already demonstrated itself to be a critical enabler of the Royal Navy’s strategic outputs – contributing to the security of the UK and delivering the United Kingdom’s Commando Forces in the littoral.'
'Furthermore, it has already successfully deployed across the globe, and in all environments. I very much look forward to leading the development and integration of this helicopter into the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in 2023 and beyond.'
Adam Clarke, Managing Director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, commented: 'MLSP has seen industry and government collaborate closely, working together to develop ideas and ensure maximum capability for mission success. The collective efforts of all stakeholders will provide CHF with a high-end Merlin helicopter, with new cockpit avionics, and limited ship optimisation, supplemented by state-of-the-art synthetic training equipment, to support its missions.'
Ben Todd, VP for UK Programmes at Leonardo, said: 'Over the course of the upgrade programme at Leonardo in Yeovil, the new modified aircraft have been delivered to the Commando Helicopter Force and re-integrated into frontline operations and now take their place to fully support defence aims. They have seen deployment from the Arctic circle in Norway to the Middle East, Caribbean and across the world embarked on HM Ships.'
Matt Grindon, Senior Test Pilot at Leonardo Helicopters UK, shared: 'It was fantastic to see the final Merlin Mk 4 released from the production line completing the MLSP programme. The Merlin Mk 4 brings a major step up in tactical prowess while the folding head and fast roping beam have been key to enabling CHF in their maritime role – a role that we now see deployed to great effect across the globe.'
The first flight of the AW101 Merlin i-Mk3 took place on 24 March 2015 and delivery of the first aircraft took place seven months later. Initial Operating Clearance was declared on 24 March 2016, a week ahead of the scheduled date, when the seventh and final aircraft was delivered. The anticipated full operational capability for the MLSP is in late 2024. The first Merlin MK4 took flight at Leonardo in Yeovil on 24 October 2016.